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Niang’s play rising at opportune time ahead of facing No. 2 Notre Dame | WKU Sports

Western Kentucky’s journey through a taxing nonconference schedule reaches its penultimate chapter Wednesday night.

It helps the Lady Toppers will face the defending national champions with a potential difference-maker coming into form.

Arame Niang is shaping into a versatile threat off the bench for the Lady Toppers. The 6-foot-3 forward is working her way into more action and just had her most complete performance of the year against Ball State on Sunday.

That trajectory serves positively for WKU (5-7), which will need that size, ability and anything else it can muster against No. 2 Notre Dame on Wednesday night in South Bend, Ind.

“Arame is getting better each game,” WKU coach Greg Collins said after WKU’s 86-83 loss on Sunday. “You can see the growth in Arame. It’s the most minutes she played all season and that’s not accidental. We’re moving her where she can play and make more impact on the game.”

Niang played a career-high 23 minutes off the bench against the Cardinals and contributed 13 points on 6-of-8 shooting. She brought in five rebounds, had two assists and contributed defensively with one block and a steal.

She was also trusted with taking the final shot to try and force overtime Sunday, but overshot the attempt at the buzzer.

The redshirt sophomore adds another long, athletic piece for a WKU team that will need it against the Fighting Irish. Wednesday marks the last of a home-and-home with Notre Dame that began last year.

Niang redshirted last season due to NCAA transfer rules. She watched her teammates play a then sixth-ranked Notre Dame team to a 78-65 loss in front of 5,061 in attendance at E.A. Diddle Arena.

Sunday against Ball State marked the most minutes she’s played since Nov. 28 against Morgan State when she scored a season-high 15 points.

Niang provided a spark in the first quarter with a crucial defensive rebound she turned into a full court take for a three-point play. She was key in the fourth quarter with a jumper that tied the game up and later an assist on a 3-pointer by Alexis Brewer that cut the Cardinals’ lead to two points.

WKU did not make Niang available after the game for an interview, but junior Whitney Creech said it’s clear the forward is easing her way into an important role.

“Arame has been growing game in and game out,” Creech said. “I think she’s gotten better lately and I think she (did) a great job tonight finding those open shots, finding those short jumpers and hitting a 3. I think she’s just doing a great job of shot selection, getting open and finding those open spaces on offense.”

Niang came to WKU from Kansai Gaida University in Japan by way of Senegal. She grew up with WKU men’s basketball player Moustapha Diagne who, during his first year at WKU, suggested to former Lady Topper coach Michelle Clark-Heard to take a look at Niang’s film.

Niang transferred after one year at the school in Japan and sat out last season. She battled a nagging knee injury early in the year that kept her out of the season opener against No. 5 Louisville on Nov. 6.

In her first game wearing a WKU uniform, Niang played 16 minutes and scored 12 points, including two 3-pointers, at Oklahoma.

She’s since been coming off the bench to ease into more responsibility as she adjusts to the speed of American college basketball.

“She had to get back in the groove of things,” said Brewer, who sat out last season alongside Niang. “She’s been sitting out for two years and I think it’s a big adjustment. I think everything is starting to click for her.”

Brewer and Collins both noted Niang’s improvement on defense, but stressed a need for it to catch up to her offensive game. Against Ball State, Niang had four defensive rebounds. She and Raneem Elgedawy combined for half of WKU’s defensive boards, and Collins said the plan moving forward is to work the two post players on the floor together.

“She still struggles on defense,” Collins said. “She gets lost a bit in the rotation or sometimes when I tell her where she needs to be and what she needs to do, she’s late to the adjustment. She’s learning and getting better every day.

“We’re working toward where we can have Raneem and Arame on the floor together so we have another lineup that gives us another look when we get those two. Tonight, and several times, it’s difficult for us to get those two together for an extended period of time because they end up in foul trouble. They’re going to get there by the end of the season.”

While Niang will get her first test against Notre Dame, the 6-4 Elgedawy will enter the Purcell Pavilion on Wednesday averaging 15.3 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. In just her third collegiate game last season, Elgedawy had 12 points and eight rebounds against the Fighting Irish.

Four of the five expected starters in the Notre Dame lineup stand 5-11 or taller. The exception is Arike Ogunbowale, the 5-8 guard who hit the two game-winning shots in the Final Four – the first against Connecticut in the semifinals and then in the national championship game against Mississippi State.

The only loss for the Fighting Irish through 10 games is an 89-71 defeat to UConn on Dec. 2.

With Notre Dame ranked No. 2 in the latest Associated Press poll, the Fighting Irish are the highest-ranked team WKU has faced since playing top-ranked Tennessee in 1998.

Western Kentucky (5-7) at No. 2 Notre Dame (9-1)

Wednesday, 6 p.m. CT, Purcell Pavilion

Western Kentucky – Sherry Porter, g, 5-7, so. (6.5 ppg, 2.6 rpg); Alexis Brewer, g, 5-9, r-jr. (12.2 ppg, 3.4 rpg); Meral Abdelgawad, g, 5-11, fr. (8.4 ppg, 2.8 rpg); Dee Givens, f, 6-1, r-jr. (19.6 ppg, 4.4 rpg); Raneem Elgedawy, f, 6-4, so. (15.3 ppg, 8.1 rpg)

Notre Dame – Arike Ogunbowale, g, 5-8, sr. (22.9 ppg, 6.4 rpg); Jackie Young, g, 6-0, jr. (17.8 ppg, 7.3 rpg); Jessica Shepherd, f, 6-4, sr. (16.6 ppg, 9.3 rpg); Brianna Tuner, f, 6-3, g-sr. (12.9 ppg, 8.0 rpg); Marina Mabrey, g, 5-11, sr. (14.0 ppg, 1.6 rpg)

Online Stream – ACC Network Extra

Radio ESPN 102.7 FM or 1450 AM

Coaches Greg Collins (5-7 first season), Western Kentucky; Muffett McGraw (809-231 32nd season, 897-272 37th overall) Notre Dame.

Series Notre Dame leads 2-0 (Notre Dame won last meeting 78-65 on Nov. 14, 2017, at E.A. Diddle Arena).

Western Kentucky lost 86-83 to Ball State on Sunday; Notre Dame defeated Binghamton 103-53 at Purcell Pavilion on Sunday.{&end}

– Follow sports reporter Elliott Pratt on Twitter @EPrattBGDN or visit bgdailynews.com.

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