HUNTINGTON — Last week, Marshall University women's basketball program took a big step toward its goals when it started the Conference USA slate with a pair of home wins over Old Dominion and Charlotte.
Marshall's tests grow exponentially as the Thundering Herd looks to stay perfect in league play in a 3 p.m. Saturday contest at perennial C-USA favorite Western Kentucky at E.A. Diddle Arena in Bowling Green, Kentucky.
"We're going to a place that is dang near impossible to play," Marshall head coach Tony Kemper said. "Don't get it twisted. We need to be humble because there is a heck of a lot of season left."
Marshall (8-7, 2-0 C-USA) takes on a Western Kentucky team that has owned the Herd since the Lady Toppers joined Conference USA. Western Kentucky (8-8, 2-0) has won 10 of 11 meetings between the schools, with the average margin of victory at 15 points. Kemper said the mental side of the rivalry matchup is as important as anything.
"I'd like to walk on the bus (to go to) Western Kentucky with everybody's head not exploded, which is usually what happens at Western Kentucky," Kemper said. "We just coach people and they don't even look like the same person when you get them on the bus, and then come back to being normal after Western, but that is a tough place to play — for Marshall, for Louisville, for whoever goes in there."
For Marshall's strong play to remain intact, the Herd's bench contributions must continue. Young players Kia Sivils, Princess Clemons and Lorelei Roper played vital minutes in both wins last week.
That helped take some of the pressure off of starters Shayna Gore (18.1 points), Taylor Porter (10.4 points), Kristen Mayo (8.9 points, 3.6 assists) and Khadaijia Brooks (8.4 points, 6.4 rebounds).
However, those bench efforts from young players came in a comfort zone at Cam Henderson Center. This week, those young players step into an arena with lots of tradition against a team that expects C-USA success, and those players will have to match the intensity, effort and execution of the Lady Toppers.
"It's going to be a new, huge challenge of how to remain level-headed with being 2-0 and going to a place that, basically, nobody wins at," Kemper said. "Going in there sky high thinking that we're going to pass two times and make a 3-pointer, that ain't the way it's going to happen. That is not going to happen.
"They throw a bunch of different defenses at you, they keep you off-balance, you can't run anything, and if you don't make good decisions, they just run you right back on the bus."
Western Kentucky is led by junior forward Dee Givens, averaging 18.6 points. However, the difference in the Lady Toppers lately was freshman Meral Abdelgawad, who won two consecutive C-USA Freshman of the Week awards. In the last three games, Abdelgawad averaged 18.5 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.7 steals while shooting 65.5 percent from the floor.
The Lady Toppers also feature sophomore forward Raneem Elgedawy, who is netting 15.3 points and 7.7 rebounds per game.
The contest is a matchup between Western Kentucky's offense and Marshall's defense. Western Kentucky averages 76.1 points while Marshall allows 64.1.
MARSHALL (8-7, 2-0) at WESTERN KENTUCKY (8-8, 2-0)
When: 3 p.m. Saturday
Where: E.A. Diddle Arena, Bowling Green, Ky.
Radio: WMUL 88.1-FM