Notre Dame match-up energizes Diddle

WKU senior forward Tashia Brown (10) wrestles for the ball with an opposing player during their game against Notre Dame on Tuesday Nov 14, 2017 in EA Diddle Arena. The Lady Toppers lost 78-65.

Tyler Mansfield

The success of the WKU women’s basketball program has been established for a while now.

But despite numerous seasons of 20 or more wins, regular-season conference championships, conference tournament championships and trips to the NCAA tournament, WKU has struggled to get fans to attend its home games.

The Lady Toppers, who compiled a dominant 42-3 record inside Diddle Arena from 2014-2017, averaged less than 2,000 people per game throughout that stretch. After one home game in the 2017-18 season, WKU has a good number to start its season average with as 5,061 people packed the arena to watch the Lady Toppers battle No. 6 Notre Dame Tuesday evening.

“Incredible,” WKU head coach Michelle Clark-Heard said of the scene at Diddle following the game. “When we stood up and did the national anthem and you look around and there aren’t hardly any seats left that you can see, it’s pretty cool. I was really happy for our players to be able to be in that type of atmosphere and that’s what I hoped for as a coach.”

The Lady Toppers couldn’t pull off the upset, falling 78-65, but the club showed those in attendance what kind of a program it is and that it can battle with just about anyone. From the time the ball was thrown up until the final buzzer, WKU went toe-to-toe with one of the most storied women’s basketball programs in the nation.

The crowd of 5,061 was the largest that had witnessed a Lady Topper game on John Oldham Court since 5,563 watched WKU vs. Louisiana Tech in 2005-06 – a year in which the Lady Toppers went a perfect 16-0 in Bowling Green.

Following its road win, Notre Dame and its Naismith Hall of Fame coach Muffet McGraw praised the type of atmosphere WKU provided and how tough Clark-Heard’s team is.

“I think it’s important that we take our team on the road to places like this that are going to have a great atmosphere for women’s basketball,” McGraw said. “I thought it was a great game for the fans. They’re a really good team, and I’m really impressed with the job that Michelle’s doing. They’re really well coached, and they’re a very good team that’s going to do a lot of damage in [Conference USA].”

After the final horn sounded, Clark-Heard grabbed a microphone, went out to the middle of the court and thanked the fans for coming out and supporting her team. She asked them to come back and continue supporting them.

“We have a really good team, and we fight, and you all saw that here tonight,” Clark-Heard told the crowd.

For Tashia Brown, who is now in her fourth season as a Lady Topper, Tuesday’s atmosphere was something she wasn’t accustomed. Prior to Tuesday, the largest crowd she had played in front of in Diddle was 4,733 during her freshman year, making the Notre Dame contest pretty special for her and her teammates.

“It was fun,” Brown said. “It was good to have all the fans out here come out and support us. We couldn’t get the win for them, and that’s what we really wanted, but I’m just glad they came out and supported us. We’ve never been in an atmosphere like that, and it was just unbelievable.”

With a season-opening win over No. 16 Missouri, an overtime battle at Iowa and now a fight with No. 6 Notre Dame, people are beginning to become familiar with WKU women’s basketball. It may not draw another crowd of 5,000 again this year, but it’s not unreasonable to predict that WKU could very well boost its average attendance numbers in 2017-18.

Reporter Tyler Mansfield can be reached at 270-935-0007 and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @_TylerMansfield.