NCAA Tournament win evades Lady Toppers again

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Alec Jessie

Friday’s blowout loss to Oregon State University in the first round of the NCAA tournament reiterated a common theme for the WKU women’s basketball team. While the Lady Toppers continue to have success in Conference USA, an NCAA Tournament win continues to elude them.

Under head coach Michelle Clark-Heard, the Lady Toppers have made four out of the last six NCAA Tournaments, but each time they have failed to win a game and advance on the big stage. WKU is still waiting for its first tournament win since 2000, when the Lady Toppers defeated Marquette University, 68-65.

It’s not as if the Lady Toppers are facing competition they cannot beat. Usually seeded in the 11-12 range, those matchups tend to be ripe for upsets, and they don’t play the top teams from Power 5 conferences.

Outside of Friday’s blowout loss, most of WKU’s tournament losses are close games. Last season, fifth-seeded Ohio State University beat WKU by just seven points, 70-63. In 2015, the Lady Toppers hit 12 3-pointers in a two-point loss to the University of Texas. WKU even played one of the top programs in country in Baylor University, dropping that game 87-74 in the 2014 NCAA Tournament.

The struggles in the tournament are surprising considering the Lady Toppers’ success in C-USA play. Over the past couple seasons, the Lady Toppers are 28-6 in conference play, finishing as a top-two team in the conference standings in each year. WKU has also won back-to-back conference tournaments in rather convincing style. WKU defeated University of Alabama-Birmingham 72-57 in the tournament championship this season and defeated University of Southern Mississippi 67-56 in last year’s tournament final.

The Lady Toppers have also been dominant at home. They haven’t lost a home conference game in two years and have only lost twice in Diddle Arena in that span as well.

This trend begs the question, what is holding the Lady Toppers back from advancing further in the big dance?

In this year’s instance, Clark-Heard doesn’t think it was because of a lack of effort.

“Really proud of my team,” Clark-Heard said. “We competed. We just didn’t make shots. But I’m really proud of who we are as a team.”

Following the loss to Oregon State, senior forward Tashia Brown claimed that not sticking to Clark-Heard’s game plan was the reason for the loss.

“Our game plan was to limit their threes,” Brown said. “But we didn’t follow it like we should have and they hit some big shots as a result.”

Oregon State was a poor matchup for the Lady Toppers. The Beavers lead the country in 3-point percentage and held a size advantage thanks to star forward Marie Gulich, who stands 6-foot-5.

But WKU has familiarized itself with succeeding in C-USA play and making it to the tournament, and Brown says that the Lady Toppers will succeed with Clark-Heard at the helm.

“We got the best coach here, and she’ll have them ready next year and every year after that,” Brown said.

Going forward, the Lady Toppers will have to chase that NCAA Tournament win without this season’s stars, Tashia and Ivy Brown. The two seniors were at the forefront of WKU’s C-USA Tournament championship run, as Tashia Brown led the conference in scoring with 22.5 points per game en route to being named the C-USA Player of the Year. Ivy Brown led the team in field goal percentage, as well as 3-point field goal percentage and total rebounds. Ivy Brown was named C-USA’s Defensive Player of the year, and both Ivy and Tashia Brown were named All-Conference First Team members.

Reporter Alec Jessie can be reached at 270-745-6291 and [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @Alec_Jessie.