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Lady Tops: Lady Toppers Can't Overcome Late Season Injury, Fall to UAB 74-62 in a Valiant Effort, Await Word from WNIT
A massive step forward, Western Kentucky’s season is over unless the 64 team tournament comes calling. Here's to the Lady Toppers!
Western Kentucky Women’s Basketball has been through some ups and downs in the last 15 years or so. From the end of the Crystal Kelly era, to the doldrums at the end of Mary Taylor Cowles, to Michelle Clark-Heard revitalizing the program, to the Greg Collins era, which has been marked by significant stagnation.
The Back Story
As bad as that looks for current Lady Topper Coach Greg Collins, look deeper than the surface.
His reign as head coach started out with perhaps unrealistic expectations of a smooth transition. I was fairly skeptical of his production in his first two years, but in hindsight, perhaps the many who joined me were wrong. He was left a fairly bare cupboard—or at least a cupboard deceptively low on essentials—losing all-time great talent within a year or two of the beginning of his tenure in Ivy Brown, Tashia Brown, Kendall Noble, Micah Jones, Dee Givens, and Whitney Creech.
Some good to great players filtered in and out of the Lady Topper program since his inaugural 2018-19 season.
Nonetheless, WKU has had one really bad year (7-16 in 2020-21) in the Greg Collins era. Again, dig deeper, critics. In 2018-19, WKU was very average considering they were coming off of greatness in the Clark-Heard era. No question, that regular season was disappointing. But WKU got a surprise invite to the WNIT and made a run to the Sweet 16 of that tournament.
WKU would parlay that momentum into a 22-7 record, only to have the infamous COVID shutdown of 2020. Who knows what happens that year, but WKU for sure would’ve been NIT bound, if not an upset or two from an appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
So perhaps frustration was mounting already on Collins.
Then 2020-21 rolls around. BOTH of your superstar Egyptians (Raneem Elgedawy and Meral Abdelgawad) were hampered by COVID problems. Raneem was not allowed to travel and was stuck in Egypt until the middle of the season. Then Meral’s Dad dies of COVID. Plus the team had obvious internal chemistry issues on top of distractions. Sheesh.
But Greg Collins and the team did a heck of a job coming together and being competitive despite the abysmal record. In my opinion, it was his best coaching job thus far at the helm of the Lady Tops. Believe it or not. But that team was playing hard and was way more competitive. They had hardcore Toppers believing they had a chance heading into the tournament to try squeak through a few rounds. It didn’t happen, but the momentum was there.
Then comes this year. Western started out a little slow, but at one point, the Lady Tops had won nine in a row and 13 of 14. WKU then lost three in a row against three conference powers in UAB, Middle, and Charlotte.
On February 5, against ODU, WKU was dominant, winning by 14. Unfortunately, shoe-in Freshman of the Year Mya Meredith went down late in the game with an apparent knee injury. Three days later, it was announced that she had torn an ACL and would be out for the rest of the season.
Most didn’t realize it at the time, but Mya Meredith was as valuable—or in some ways more valuable—to the Lady Tops as Meral Abdelgawad, who by the way exploded for 20 points per game this season. Going forward from the Meredith injury, WKU has gone 3-5 and frankly looked capable of 0-8. WKU was 15-7 before Mya Meredith’s injury. The three wins? Two absolute battles against bottom feeders in UTSA and FAU, teams WKU would have blown out the week before with Meredith, almost without question. The other win was an incredible 17 point comeback in the second half at home against arch rival Middle. WKU would tie it at the end and win in overtime in an absolute shocker out of nowhere.
So heading into this game against UAB, WKU has just simply been on the ropes and getting bludgeoned. It’s really something that just makes me want to throw up for these ladies that poured their guts out for the Tops. I hate how this season has finished, but I hope they realize what a MASSIVE turnaround they made.
And I hope the WNIT honors the Lady Tops with an invite, because they deserve a chance to showcase themselves after a wonderful season.
Recap vs. UAB
Western Kentucky managed to salvage the fourth seed in East Division, while UAB melted down significantly to end the year to plummet into the fifth seed in the West. When WKU played UAB, they were actually leading the division. Since playing WKU, UAB went 4-9 to finish the regular season. UAB was 4-1 when they played Western the first time.
Coming out to start the game, both teams traded a messy exchange. That normally happens when both teams are nervous and starting the conference tournament. Neither team had played in the first round, so a wild first minute left both teams scoreless, and by the next minute, UAB had taken early control with a 6-0 lead after several more quick possessions. From there, WKU would outscore UAB 13-7 to tie it at 13 apiece, and UAB would benefit from the last possessions to end up 20-17 in a pretty high scoring first quarter.
UAB would seize control from there, going up as many as nine (35-26 with 3:49 in the 2nd). Western would fight back to cut the lead to three at the break, certainly minimizing the damage and putting themselves in position for a good third quarter. The good third quarter idea looked like a dud when UAB’s Kylee Schneringer made a three pointer to put the Blazers up 47-38 with 7:10 remaining in the third. WKU, the scrappy, vicious, determined women that they have proven to be all season, fought back once again, this time blitzing UAB for a 12-0 run and a 14-3 overall finish to the third quarter.
So heading into the fourth up two after being down as many as nine, WKU was feeling incredible, I was excited and glued to my phone screen. Hoping the Lady Tops were going to pull off a W between two teams that faded to finish the season, WKU came out and actually extended the lead with a Jaylin Foster three pointer. It felt the Tops were going to cruise to the W.
However, from that point, WKU would go absolutely ice cold and score only eight total points in the quarter, including that three in the first 15 seconds. UAB could only score 13 from that point forward and WKU would have sent the game to overtime, but UAB hit more than 2/3 of their shots in the fourth and outscored WKU by 17 in the last 9:45 to end up with a double digit victory, 74-62.
Consequently, WKU is eliminated, and now UAB moves on to play La Tech and the Lady Toppers are a bubble team for the WNIT. If the WNIT was like the men’s tournament, which only allows 32 teams, WKU wouldn’t stand a chance. But here we stand hopeful that the WNIT will throw WKU a deserved bone and let these warriors salvage some honor from a remarkable season despite the fizzle to end the guaranteed portion of the season.
Perhaps WKU did enough to earn a non-guaranteed extra set of opportunities?
Everyone point your best puppy dog eyes at the WNIT.
We’ll see, but there’s no doubt this program has been through the wringer the past couple of years. This year was different than last season for many reasons, but the same theme creeped in at the end: Major pieces just not able to go for important stretches of the season.
But let’s celebrate the Lady Tops. These ladies deserve respect. They were the better basketball team on The Hill for over half of the season, as they usually are. If these ladies get any opportunity to participate in the WNIT, watch the game. Go if there is a home game or two. Travel if it’s close to you.
Support the Lady Tops, and ladies, if this was the last game of the 2021-22 season, keep your heads held high and be proud of what you accomplished.
Hilltopper Nation, let’s give it up for the Lady Tops!