Miami, Fla. — The Western Kentucky University women’s basketball team entered Wednesday’s game at Florida International having already secured the top seed in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament, but with a 79-56 win over the Golden Panthers at Pharmed Arena, the Lady Toppers were able to clinch an outright Sun Belt Conference East Division championship.
WKU completed a season sweep of the Golden Panthers as they it improved to 22-7 overall and 15-2 in the Sun Belt. FIU dropped to 12-16 and 8-9 in the league.
“I think what really showed up tonight was our conditioning. FIU came out shooting the ball well, but we set the tone offensively early and really took it to them with our speed and quickness,” said Lady Topper head coach Mary Taylor Cowles. “I thought our guard play was as good as it has been all year. Our perimeter players really set the tone and were ready to play when the ball was tipped tonight.”
The starting backcourt trio of Amy McNear, Kenzie Rich and Dominique Duck combined for 38 points, with Duck and Rich accounting for 16 and 14, respectively, while McNear dropped in eight points and dished out six assists. Rich — who came into the game having hit just one of her last 13 three-point attempts in the previous four contests — went 4-for-6 from behind the arc against the Golden Panthers.
The Lady Toppers were able to put the game away quickly at the start of the second half after struggling to pull away in the opening 20 minutes. Leading by eight at intermission, WKU saw Fanni Hutlassa connect on a three-point play to get the final period started. However, a Rich three the next time down the court ignited a 12-0 Lady Topper run to open up a 50-33 lead just three minutes into the period.
The Golden Panthers connected on just four field goals on the first 12 minutes of the second half as WKU was able to stretch its lead out to 24 on two occasions midway through the half. In fact, the Lady Toppers held FIU to just 37.5 percent shooting in the half — and 36.2 percent for the game — while connecting on 57.1 percent of its shots in the contest.
After opening up the 24-point lead midway through the half, the Lady Toppers allowed the Golden Panthers to get no closer that 18 points the rest of the way. The reserves were able to stretch the lead out to 25 points in the final minutes before FIU shaved that deficit by two points before the final horn. In fact, the WKU bench outscored the Golden Panther reserves 16-4 in the game, with all four of those points coming from Antonia Zeigler in the last two minutes of the game.
While it controlled most of the second half, WKU used a run midway through the first half to turn a one-point deficit into a six point advantage. The lead changed hands three times in the span of a minute as Iva Ciglar put FIU in front 18-17 with a jumper at the 12:07 mark. Duck — who had nine points in the opening half — knocked down a free throw with just under 12 minutes left in the half to spark a 9-2 Lady Topper run as they were able to pull out to a 26-20 lead on a pair of Crystal Kelly free throws with 8:30 to go before halftime.
The Golden Panthers pulled within a basket on two occasions, but Rich scored five straight Lady Topper points as they were able to stretch the lead out to 33-26 with 4:37 on the clock. Kelly — who scored nine points in the period — went to the bench with her third foul at the 3:36 mark, but WKU was able to close the period by scoring five of the final nine points — getting a three-point play from Arnika Brown with 22 seconds remaining to send WKU to the locker room with their largest lead of the half at 38-30.
Kelly finished the night with a game-high 25 points for WKU — going 9-for-10 from the field — to join Rich and Duck in double figures. Ciglar paced four FIU starters in double figures with 17 points.
The Lady Toppers will close out the 2007-08 regular season on Saturday as they remain in the Sunshine State to visit Florida Atlantic for a 4 p.m. (CST) game on Saturday in Boca Raton.