Mobile, Ala. — Five years to the day of their last championship, the Western Kentucky University women’s basketball team once again cut down the nets on Tuesday as they captured their ninth Sun Belt Conference Tournament championship with a 65-49 win over Middle Tennessee at the Mitchell Center.
WKU (26-7) will now receive the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament — marking the 16th trip to the Big Dance in the program’s history. The 2008 Tournament field will be announced on Monday, March 17. WKU will hold a selection show party at E.A. Diddle Arena beginning at 5:30 p.m. (CDT). The free event will allow fans to celebrate a conference championship with the Lady Toppers, as well as purchase NCAA tickets once the brackets are revealed.
“We’re just very, very proud of our basketball team. This is just an awesome feeling — and it’s been a while,” said Lady Topper head coach Mary Taylor Cowles, who will lead the Lady Toppers to the tournament for the second time in six year. “We had a basketball team that came to Mobile this weekend to win a tournament, and everybody stepped up to make that happen. I’m just very excited for the opportunity these young ladies have presented themselves with, getting an NCAA Tournament bid.”
After playing a back-and-forth first half, the Lady Toppers controlled the final 20 minutes, outscoring the Blue Raiders 40-25 and shooting 60 percent from the field. WKU was able to open up a five-point lead early in the second half, only to see MTSU use a 7-1 run to regain a 33-32 lead on an Amber Holt layup with 16:24 remaining.
For the second straight half, the Blue Raiders found themselves on a scoring drought as the Lady Toppers scored 12 unanswered points, and held MTSU scoreless for eight minutes in opening up a 44-33 lead. After a Holt jumper broke the drought, Kenzie Rich knocked down a three to push the lead into double figures for good.
A Latoya Barclay jumper at the 6:19 mark cut the lead down to 10, but Rich connected on a four-point play the next trip down the court to extend the Lady Topper lead to 14 points with 4:44 remaining. That play proved to be the nail in the coffin as WKU extended its lead to 18 points late in the contest before celebrating a 16-point championship game victory. That now stands as the largest margin of victory for a Lady Topper team in a Sun Belt Conference Tournament championship game.
The nerves of a championship game were evident on both offensive ends in the first half as the top two score teams in the lead played to a 25-24 score at intermission. WKU never held more than a two-point lead in the game, despite shooting 41.7 percent in the first half to the Blue Raiders’ 29.6 percent.
After four early ties, the Blue Raiders got back-to-back threes from Emily Queen and Jackie Pickel, and a pair of free throws from Amber Holt to open up an 18-10 lead with 11:29 on the clock. However, MTSU would go nearly eight minutes without a point as the Lady Toppers scored eight unanswered to tie the game at 18-18 on a layup from Arnika Brown at the 4:29 mark.
Holt broke the Blue Raider drought with a basket at the 3:58 mark, then hit another to put MTSU up 22-18. A pair of Dominique Duck free throws and a Crystal Kelly jumper tied the game at 22-22 with 1:59 left, but Middle Tennessee regained the lead on a Latoya Barclay jumper with 45 seconds remaining. On the next possession, Kenzie Rich hit a three from the corner with 28 ticks remaining, and WKU got a defensive stand in the closing seconds to go into the locker room with a one-point halftime lead. The Lady Toppers were able to carry that momentum into the second half as they outscored the Blue Raiders by 15 points.
Four Lady Toppers finished the day in double figures — and were the four that represented WKU on the 2008 all-Sun Belt Tournament team. Rich led the way with 18 points, going 5-for-6 from the field and 4-for-5 from behind the arc. Crystal Kelly and Brown both posted double doubles, finishing with 16 and 11 points, respectively, and each collecting a game-high 13 rebounds. Duck — who was named the 2008 Sun Belt Tournament MVP — tossed in 12 points.