Lady Tops fall to Ohio State in first round of NCAA Tournament

WKU forward Tasha Brown (10) makes a jumps shot over Southern Miss players during the Lady Toppers’ 79-53 win over Southern Miss on Saturday Feb. 4, 2017 in Diddle Arena.

Matthew Stewart

After missing out on the NCAA Tournament despite a successful season in 2016, the Lady Tops returned to the Big Dance this past weekend.

WKU’s return to the tournament was short-lived, as the 12-seeded Lady Tops fell to No. 5 seed Ohio State in Lexington.

Hilltopper red dominated the landscape of Memorial Coliseum. It was almost a home environment for Head Coach Michelle Clark-Heard and her squad.

“It was a fun game, a great atmosphere,” senior guard Kendall Noble said. “We had the home-court advantage, it was like we were playing at Diddle. We just couldn’t make shots. It’s pretty cool. I had a ton of people here today to watch me play and I tried to play hard for them.”

Starting off for the Lady Tops,  it was apparent that Kyvin Goodin-Rogers was back in her element playing in Memorial Coliseum.

Junior guard Jaycee Coe, another former Kentucky Wildcat, did the same thing nailing her first three point attempt in front of former coach Matthew Mitchell.

The Tops were able to control the pace for much of the first half despite shooting just 28.6 percent from the field in the opening half.

The shots just weren’t falling for the Tops. WKU shot 28.9 percent from the field. One of the stats that hurt was the three-point shooting. This team relied heavily on the three ball in the Conference USA tournament. Against Ohio State WKU went 9-37 from deep.

“When you’re undersized, we had been shooting three-pointers pretty well, so our plan was to get as many three-pointers as we could and open it up and try to pull up jumpers after that,” Clark-Heard said. “We wanted to keep them off the board and make sure we played an aggressive ball game for the first five minutes because we know how fast they can put points on the board. I’m just really proud of this group. We’re running off of 12 wins before we got here so the confidence that the staff and I had in this team, we knew that we were going to come out and compete.”

Heading in to halftime, the deficit for the Lady Tops was slim as OSU led 37-30.

“My message to them was we played the whole conference tournament in three games and we turned the ball over 13 times, so we know how to handle pressure,” Clark-Heard said. “We came out and we only turned it over one more time in the second half … They’re a great ball team. I’m just proud of our group.”

To start the second half WKU scored the first four points to cut the lead to 37-34. The Buckeyes came right back and scored the next seven points to take a 10-point advantage 44-34. The Lady Tops would cut the lead back to six, but trailed 50-43 at the end of the third quarter.

The fourth quarter was full of action all the way to the final seconds. WKU again got within six, cutting it to 52-46. Then Ohio State put the game away going on an 8-0 run to take a 60-46 lead.

A couple quality plays were drawn up by the coaching staff while playing the fouling game with the Buckeyes. Sophomore guard Tashia Brown made things interesting late. Brown hit a three to cut the lead to six but OSU would walk away victorious with a 70-63 win.

“She (Clark-Heard) told us not to give up,” Noble said. “We don’t roll over. We showed everybody that we are fighters. We made a comeback and cut it close.”

The Lady Toppers out-rebounded the larger OSU team 44-41 in the contest which was one of the keys to the game plan for WKU to be successful.

“This was a tough one,” Clark-Heard said. “I’m really proud of my group. The game plan was perfect, they executed what we asked them to do, but the ball wouldn’t go in the hole for us and you have those nights. The way we battled and the way we competed, I think we out rebounded them and that was one of the focuses that we talked about and I’m just really proud of our grit and our grind. This group is special and I just hate to see it end.”

Noble led the way once again and one final time for the Lady Tops as she has done many times over her career. Noble finished with a double-double performance with 19 points and 12 rebounds while shooting 7-22 from the field and 1-7 from deep.

Clark-Heard has a special relationship with Noble and is proud of what she has become.

“When you’re a head coach, you wish your whole career that you could have a player that believed in you so much and just did whatever you asked her and for a player that’s as special as Kendall Noble, who every day comes to work and does everything you ask her,” Clark-Heard said. “I’m thankful for people that believed in me when I got this job and a friend of mine told me about Kendall Noble and I had watched her in high school and when I was coaching at the University of Louisville and I’m really blessed.”

This team was led by fifth year seniors Noble and Micah Jones all year. Jones finished the game with three points, shooting 1-7 from the floor. The 27-7 record overall and 16-2 in conference play speaks volumes to what Clark-Heard and her players have been able to do in the past several seasons.

“I think it all speaks for itself,” Clark-Heard said. “If you win a regular season championship, you had to win it on the road. You go to a conference tournament and we had great teams in our conference and the whole season we had the target on our back and we figured it out and we won. They just kept fighting and the way they played today and never gave up is what this team is and that’s what I will always remember about this team.”

Reporter Matthew Stewart can be reached at 859-797-3140 and [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @MES_WKU22.