Lady Tops defeat Charlotte 71-60

Western Kentucky forward Raneem Elgedawy passes the ball while guarded by Charlotte 49ers forward Dara Pearson (left) during WKU’s 71-60 win on Thursday at E.A. Diddle Arena.

The Western Kentucky women’s basketball team reached one of its regular-season goals with Thursday’s 71-60 win over Charlotte – get a first-round bye in the Conference USA Tournament.

The win locked the Lady Toppers into the No. 3 seed, and the team will take a “one-game championship” mindset to The Star in Frisco, Texas, for its first game Thursday, where it will face the winner of Wednesday’s game between Charlotte and North Texas.

“We’ll focus on one game first because the conference is as tough as it’s been and that first-round game will be no joke,” WKU coach Greg Collins said after Saturday’s win over Louisiana Tech. “ ... We’re going to have to focus on that first-round game and just worry about that game and then we’ll worry about the next game after that, and if we just keep focused on one game at a time, then maybe we’ll find ourselves in the championship.”

WKU (22-7) claimed back-to-back C-USA titles in 2017 and 2018, but lost in the semifinals to eventual champion Rice last year to see the opportunity for a three-peat fall short. Rice enters this year’s tournament as the No. 1 seed after claiming the regular-season title with a 73-70 victory over Old Dominion on Saturday. The Monarchs were the only team to beat the Owls in conference play this season, and both beat WKU.

The Lady Toppers lost to Rice in Houston 73-65 in its second conference game after dropping a 61-54 decision at North Texas two days earlier. A rematch with Rice wouldn’t come until Saturday’s 4:30 p.m. championship game, if both were to advance that far, but a possible semifinal matchup with Old Dominion could be in play for WKU on Friday. The Monarchs gave WKU its third of four conferences losses. The other came in double overtime at Middle Tennessee, snapping the Lady Toppers’ 10-game winning streak.

First, however, the Lady Toppers will have to get past the quarterfinal round, where they’ll see the winner of Wednesday’s 2 p.m. game between No. 6 seed Charlotte and No. 11 seed North Texas. Charlotte beat North Texas 72-59 on Feb. 13 and WKU beat Charlotte both times the two met, including in Thursday’s game that clinched the No. 3 seed for WKU.

WKU has its sights set only on Thursday’s game, knowing the balance the league has brought this season. Collins has said repeatedly throughout the year C-USA is the most balanced it’s ever been, and it shows with the records the teams bring into the tournament. Six teams – WKU, Rice, Old Dominion, Middle Tennessee, UAB and Charlotte – have 20 or more wins, marking the first time since 2004-05 that C-USA has produced six 20-win teams.

The Lady Toppers enter the tournament with back-to-back wins and have won 12 of their last 13 games after a 2-3 start to C-USA play. WKU picked up three of its first four conference wins in what Collins called a “four-game tournament” and the rest of the season has come with a “one-game championship” mindset.

Despite the success, WKU has been tested, especially late in the season. After the double-overtime loss at Middle Tennessee, the Lady Toppers had to overcome halftime deficits in their last two games to finish a perfect 13-0 at E.A. Diddle Arena.

“I think it’s going to benefit us for sure,” WKU senior point guard Whitney Creech said after Saturday’s win. “I think in the conference tournament it’s not going to be blowouts, it’s going to be down-to-the-wire games where you have to execute in the halfcourt on offense and defense, so these tight games are really going to help us in the postseason.”

WKU’s formula for success has started with defense and rebounding. The slow start in league play started with slow shooting – the Lady Toppers shot under 22 percent from 3-point range through the first nine conference games – but improvements in those two facets of the game helped turn the tide. While WKU is 12th in the league in scoring defense (66.5 points per game) and last in both field goal percentage defense (43.5 percent) and 3-point percentage defense (33.8 percent), it’s leading the conference in steals (10.2 per game) and turnover margin (plus 4.3).

The Lady Toppers are also now fourth in the conference in rebounding margin at plus 3.9, despite being outrebounded in two of their last three games. WKU struggled on the boards early against Louisiana Tech in the regular-season finale and trailed by 10 points at the end of the first quarter, but finished plus 12 on the boards.

“If we’re going to compete for a championship, if we’re going to win the first-round game, we’ve got to do a better job of protecting the basket,” Collins said.

Even with a slow shooting start to the conference slate, WKU enters the tournament first in the league in scoring offense at 74.1 points per game and is now firing 31.3 percent from beyond the arc for the season, which is fourth-best in C-USA. Raneem Elgedawy (17.6 points per game), Dee Givens (16.2) and Whitney Creech (13.7) fill three of the top 11 spots in league scoring. Elgedawy is second in the league in rebounding with 11 per game. Alexis Brewer has also been scoring more with double-digit point totals, including a career-high 28 at Middle Tennessee, in the last three games after recovering from offseason shoulder surgery.

“We just have to bring energy and keep rebounding the basketball and play defense and our offense will come,” Brewer said after Saturday’s win.

Rice will face the winner of Wednesday’s game between Marshall and Southern Miss in the quarterfinals. In the other quarterfinal in the top half of the bracket, Middle Tennessee will face the winner between UAB and Louisiana Tech. Old Dominion will face the winner of the first-round game between UTEP and Florida Atlantic in the quarterfinals, before the possible semifinal meeting with WKU, if both advance.

But for the Lady Toppers, the entire focus now is on Thursday’s 2 p.m. game against either Charlotte or North Texas.

“It’s just staying together,” Givens said. “I think as a team, if we just stay together, have each other’s back, go out and have fun, I think everything else will take care of itself.”

– Follow sports reporter Jared MacDonald on Twitter @JMacDonaldSport or visit bgdailynews.com.

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