HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — The Lady Tops reached one of their season-long goals in securing 20 wins, but Alysha Clark ensured Western wouldn’t go much further than that.
Clark scored 44 points — a Sun Belt Conference Tournament record — in leading second-seeded Middle Tennessee (24-5) past the No. 3-seeded Lady Tops, 76-63, in the tournament’s semifinal round Monday at Summit Arena.
A teary-eyed coach Mary Taylor Cowles said she’s not sure what’s next for Western, which is all but guaranteed to miss the NCAA Tournament. But Cowles said she and the outgoing seniors would accept what they’re given.
“If our name’s called, we’re ready to play ball,” she said. “Obviously it’s not the tournament we want to be in just because that’s what we started on Aug. 31 — the first week of school — getting in the weight room and out on the track and on the floor condition.
“That’s what you work for — to get to the big dance.”
Clark broke Arkansas-Little Rock forward Chastity Reed’s 41-point record, also set on Monday. Even through Clark’s performance — and the sequential 36-16 difference of points in the paint — Cowles said the Lady Toppers never gave up.
“I think that demonstrated something that’s special to WKU and Lady Topper basketball, and that’s an attitude of we’re not going to quit,” Cowles said. “That, as a coach, makes me very very proud.”
The Lady Toppers (21-10) opened slow for the second day in a row, going down 20-4 before eight minutes had passed.
But unlike Sunday, when Western recovered and went on to beat South Alabama, there was no answer to Clark and the rest of the Lady Raiders.
Middle Tennessee shook off a 9-0 Lady Topper run that put Western in striking distance by running out to a 15-point halftime lead. Clark finished the half with 23 points, more than the Lady Toppers combined.
Senior forward Dominique Duck blamed Western’s slow start on the Lady Toppers’ inability to finish easy baskets. Western shot 27.6 percent from field goal range in the first half and 35.4 percent for the game.
“We just buried ourselves, and it took a lot of energy to fight back and come back,” Duck said. “Middle’s a good team, and every time we threw something at them, they countered it with something else.”
The Lady Raiders only increased their lead — peaking at 21 points with 15:06 to play — out of the second half. Western did challenge once more thanks to senior guard Kenzie Rich’s 20 second half points, pulling to within 10 points with 2:07 to play, but Middle Tennessee spurted ahead to finish the game on a 7-4 run.
Rich’s 20 points paced Western, with junior guard Amy McNear adding 15. Duck was the third and final Lady Topper to reach double figures with 10 points.
Clark’s 44 points accounted for more than half of Middle Tennessee’s points and led up to only four Lady Raiders scoring on the day.
After being denied an NCAA Tournament berth again, Rich said she’s now ready to move on to other postseason play.
“It’s frustrating not being able to win the tournament, because that was one of our goals in the beginning of the year,” Rich said. “We’ve just go to forget about this, get back to work, and hopefully we can win another tournament.”
Cowles said the road to postseason play starts with a few days off for the Lady Toppers, who join Western’s students on spring break for the rest of the week.