HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — Head Coach Mary Taylor Cowles said she hoped to stick around for a few days at this year’s Sun Belt Conference Tournament.
The Lady Toppers (21-9, 15-4 Sun Belt) granted Cowles’ wish on Sunday, coming from 11 points down in the first half to knock off South Alabama and advance to the tournament’s semifinal round.
“We’re happy to be here. We’re happy to be staying for another day,” Cowles said. “I’m really proud of our young ladies and their effort.”
Third-seeded Western will next face No. 2 seed Middle Tennessee at 2:30 p.m. Monday in a geographic rivalry moved south.
Whether or not the Lady Toppers would even get to that point, however, was in serious question through the first half of their game against the Jaguars.
South Alabama (15-16, 9-10 Sun Belt) held Western scoreless until senior forward Arnika Brown hit a field goal more than five minutes into the game, allowing the Jaguars to then jump out to an 11-point lead at the 10:54 mark of the first half.
Enter sophomore forward Keisha Mosley.
The Purdue transfer scored eight points in 10 minutes in the first half, sparking a change of pace that pushed the Lady Toppers out to the lead for good. Mosley said Cowles’ desire to stay in contention rubbed off on her.
“I had the opportunity to come out there and perform,” Mosley said. “Me thinking how I think, I just didn’t want to go home.”
Junior guard Amy McNear hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to cap off a 14-0 Western run and send the Lady Toppers into the half with a 32-24 lead. That lead grew larger as 14 straight points in the first half peaked at 22 straight in the second, and Western put the game away up 21 points with 13:14 to play.
Cowles said she was proud of the way the Lady Toppers worked to get to this point — especially after missing the Sun Belt tournament’s trip to Hot Springs last season.
“This is what you put all those hours and all that time in for, is to get to your postseason conference tournament,” Cowles said.
Lady Topper foul trouble — as both Dominique Duck and Amy McNear exited the game with five personals — allowed the Jaguars to pull within striking distance inside of a minute to play. Western shot 12-for-19 from the free throw line, though, and it proved to be just enough to slip away with a win.
Brown’s team-high 17 points were enough to add her name to the list of 1,000-point scorers in Lady Topper history. McNear and senior guard Kenzie Rich each scored 13 points, and senior forward Dominique Duck added 12.
“My mind is not really set on I, as far as Arnika goes,” Brown said. “Winning this championship would be greater than any individual aspect as far as the season goes.”
Brown completed her double-double performance by pulling down a team-high 10 rebounds.