Bench play gives Lady Tops a balanced boost

Senior Guard Kendall Noble (12) drives for a shot as she is defended by Marshall University guard Kiana Evans (22) and guard Shayna Gore (14) during the first half of the Lady Toppers 73-57 win over Marshall on Saturday Jan. 21, 2017 at Diddle Arena.

Kenton Hornbeck

Heading into last Thursday’s conference matchup against Texas San Antonio, WKU sophomore guard Kayla Smith was averaging just 3.6 points per game. 

While the Lady Toppers rely on consistent production from All-Conference USA guards Kendall Noble and Tashia Brown, the balance in their roster allows for different players to step up and shine.

Smith came off the bench scoring 17 points on six of seven shooting from the field against UTSA, and although they lost the game, Head Coach Michelle Clark-Heard remains optimistic about the team’s depth.

“We expect our bench to be able to give us some quality minutes with a lot of things that we need for us to be successful,” Clark-Heard said. “And as you get deeper into the conference you have to have that.”

Smith, who was a regular starter in her freshman season in 2015-16, remained modest about her breakout performance on Saturday.

“I wasn’t really focused on how many shots I had made, I was just helping my teammates as best I can,” Smith said.

During the dog days of basketball season, coaching staffs cherish unexpected production. As the middle of conference play carries on, the Lady Tops look to remain steadily trending upwards.

The better the bench performs at this point in the season, the more trust Clark-Heard has in her talented young roster.

“I think they’re still young, but I think we do have a lot of talent,” Clark-Heard said. “I think that a lot of the ways that we’ve been able to win in certain situations … different people stepped up at different times. As a coach, what you hope for is for some consistency and you know exactly what you’re going to get. One thing I do know is that I’m very comfortable and confident in whoever I put out on the floor and in every player that plays on this team. On any given night and on any given day, you gotta be ready because you don’t know how the defense is gonna play and you don’t know how your ball is falling compared to someone else’s.”

Whether they’re diving on the hardwood for loose balls, playing hard-nosed man-to-man defense or fighting inside for a rebound, bench players are the glue of a team.

“It’s just the little things like focusing on boxing out, hustling, and 50/50 balls,” Smith said. “Those little things can change a lot in a game.”

Smith hasn’t been the only player to contribute meaningful minutes off the pine. Redshirt sophomore guard Jaycee Coe currently leads all players on the team in three-point field goal percentage with a minimum of 30 attempts, shooting from beyond the arc at a 37-percent clip.

Senior guard Ima Akpan is fifth on the team in total rebounds despite averaging 13.3 minutes per game. These types of skill-sets are beneficial for Clark-Heard’s team because of the flexibility it gives her in distributing minutes.

Strong bench play also creates confidence within the coaching staff. If the Lady Tops continue to have high bench production, Clark-Heard’s squad can be a serious threat heading into the C-USA tournament.

“Whatever place she puts me in, I know it’s what’s best for the team so that’s what kind of helped me too on learning and adapting to different things,” Smith said.

Reporter Kenton Hornbeck can be reached at 859-445-7702 and [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @KentonHornbeck.