WKU set for Hawkeye Challenge in Iowa City

Tyler Mansfield

Michelle Clark-Heard has mentioned multiple times that she sets out  every season to find the toughest competition to put on her team’s schedule.

The sixth-year WKU head coach did exactly that for 2017-18, as the Lady Toppers open their regular season slate with a pair of tough games in Iowa’s Hawkeye Challenge, beginning with No. 16 Missouri on Friday afternoon at 2:30 p.m.

“[Missouri] is a top-16 team in the country. Robin [Pingeton] does a great job, and they play in an amazing conference,” Clark-Heard said of WKU’s next opponent and its coach. “They shoot the three very well, they’re very aggressive, they have bigs on the inside and have guards. We’re gonna have to guard the three. We’re gonna have to rebound and make sure we defend.”

With a schedule full of tough opponents – especially early in the nonconference part of it – WKU traveled to Louisville last Sunday for a closed scrimmage against the ninth-ranked Cardinals to add additional preparation for this weekend for next Tuesday’s home showdown with No. 6 Notre Dame.

Clark-Heard said competing against Louisville really benefited WKU for similar competition in Missouri, Iowa and Notre Dame.

“It really helped a lot and that’s kind of why we scheduled it that way so we could get on the road and go there and make it feel like an away game,” Clark-Heard said. “Louisville is always a consistently good, well-coached team and they do things similar as an SEC team. I think it really helped our players’ confidence – and that’s what it’s all about, growing as a unit.”

Coming off a 2016-17 campaign that included both Conference USA regular season and tournament championships, WKU tipped off this season with a 101-58 exhibition win over Union University. In the season-opening victory, the Lady Toppers had multiple players step up and contribute at a high level.

That overall dominant outing put the Lady Toppers in a good position as they enter by far the toughest area of their schedule.

“I feel really good about this team,” sophomore guard Whitney Creech said. “The two games really showed us where we’re at and what we need to work on and what we’re doing pretty good at, so I think we have a good feel going into these games and what we can do well.”

Missouri won both of its exhibition games, 77-55 over Southwest Baptist and 80-30 over McKendree, respectively, over the past two weeks. Along with ranking 16th in the preseason poll, the Tigers were selected to finish third in the SEC with junior guard Sophie Cunningham being named to the Preseason All-SEC team.

The Tigers went 22-11 overall and finished with an 11-5 mark in SEC play a season ago. As a then-sophomore, Cunningham averaged 17.5 points per game.

Following Friday’s game against Mizzou, the Lady Toppers will then meet either host Iowa or Quinnipiac on Saturday to close out play in Iowa City. Clark-Heard has a good relationship with Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder from their time with USA Basketball, and she invited WKU to play in the tournament.

“Lisa Bluder and I were in USA Basketball together. She was the head coach of the Pan-Am team and we became friends very fast,” Clark-Heard said. “When she asked me to bring the team out, I was excited because I knew the level of competition and I knew she would get another great team. I knew it would put our players in the position where we could grow.”

Women’s basketball beat writer Tyler Mansfield can be reached at (270) 935-0007 and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @_TylerMansfield.