Bowling Green, Ky. — Twenty was the number of the night on Wednesday as the Western Kentucky University women’s basketball team picked up a 61-51 win over South Alabama at E.A. Diddle Arena.
Crystal Kelly became only the second player in Lady Toppers history to record to post a 20-20 double-double as she finished with a game-high 22 points and tied a school record with 20 rebounds. That helped lead the Lady Toppers to their sixth straight 20-win season as they moved to 20-7 and 13-2 in the Sun Belt Conference East Division. Her scoring efforts also moved Kelly into 20th place on the NCAA Division I career scoring list with 2,651 points.
“We’re excited to able to move one step closer to clinching the top seed in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament,” said Lady Topper head coach Mary Taylor Cowles. “I really like the momentum we get coming off a win, no matter how it looks in the end.”
WKU never led the Jaguars (17-10, 8-8 SBC East) by more than 13 points in the game, and never was able to pull away at any point in the second half. In fact, the Lady Toppers shot just 28.6 percent from the field in the final period, and connected on just one field goal in the final 11:38 of the contest. After Arnika Brown connected on a layup to give WKU a 46-35 lead, it would score its next 10 points at the free throw line over a an almost nine-minute stretch. Brown was the one to break the drought from the field when she drained a three as the shot clock expired to stretch the Lady Topper lead to 59-47 with 2:04 to play. In fact, Brown connected on a pair of threes in the contest — the first two of her WKU career.
Fortunately for WKU, it was able to hold the Jaguars to 33.8 percent shooting for the game, and did not send USA to the foul line once in the contest. The Lady Toppers, on the other hand, went 18-for-20 at the charity line, including a 12-for-14 night from Kelly.
“The key at this point in the season is finding a way to win no matter what challenges are thrown at you, and we did that tonight,” added Cowles. “We were able to learn some things tonight from what we were able to do well, and also learn from our mistakes. My challenge to our team is to continue to get better, and I think we did that in several areas tonight.”
A 14-0 run late in the first half helped WKU break open an otherwise close period of play. In fact, after jumping out to an eight-point lead with 11:03 to go when Brown knocked down a jumper to make it 16-8, the Jaguars used an 11-2 run of their own to take their only lead of the game when a Monique Jones three put USA on top 19-18 with 7:53 on the clock.
Brown quickly answered with a layup on the next possession to put the Lady Toppers back in front and spark the run of 14 unanswered points that allowed them to open up a 32-19 lead on a Dalila Thomas layup with 3:21 remaining. The Jags were held scoreless for nearly six minutes before Karina Sproal ended the drought with a three with just under two minutes left in the half. In fact, another three by Jeanette Tucker allowed South Alabama to close the half on a 6-2 run to cut the WKU margin down to nine at intermission.
Three Lady Toppers accounted for most of the offense in the first half as Kelly and Dominique Duck each dropped in 10 points, while Brown added nine off the bench. Kelly also posted a double-double in the opening 10 minutes as she collected 10 boards before halftime.
That trio finished the night accounting for 52 of WKU’s 61 points and Brown and Duck finished with 16 and 14, respectively, to go along with Kelly’s game-high 22. Jones paced the Jaguars off the bench with 12 points — seven of which came in the first half — while Patriece Brunner chipped in 10 for the Jaguars.
The Lady Toppers will wrap up the home portion of the regular season on Saturday (Feb. 22) when they host Louisiana-Monroe at 3 p.m. (CST). Prior to the game, WKU will honor its three seniors — Kelly, Charlotte Marshall and Nadege Muna. Also, following the game there will be a ceremony to retire a number 42 jersey in honor of Kelly. The game itself also looms big for the Lady Toppers as a victory would clinch the top seed in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament, and the Sun Belt East Division championship.