Lady Tops split games in Texas-sized road trip

Senior guard Ima Akpan (20) goes up for a jump shot against junior guard McKenzie Akers (5) on Saturday Jan. 21, 2017 at Diddle Arena.

Sam Porter

The WKU women’s basketball team has traveled approximately 3,114 miles in a critical two-game road trip dating back to last Thursday.

The Lady Tops left early on Wednesday to make the 19-hour trip to El Paso, Texas, for a Thursday night game against UTEP, the defending regular season Conference USA champions.

After a 71-54 win over the Miners, the Lady Tops made the 752-mile journey east to San Antonio, Texas, for a showdown with UTSA.

Despite 28 points from Kendall Noble, the Lady Tops fell 80-77 in a game which they led for over three quarters. 

“We gave up 80 points and we have to learn from that,” Head Coach Michelle-Clark Heard said in a radio interview after the loss. “We have to do better at doing the things we need to do to get stops. At the end of the day, we have to go back and go to work. That’s on me. I’m going to figure it out.”

After falling to the Miners 85-78 a season ago, the Lady Tops sought revenge at the Don Haskins Center, the Miners’ home court. With the game tied at 11 early in the first quarter, sophomore forward Kayla Smith provided a spark off the bench. The Fayetteville, Georgia, native’s three pointer ignited a 14-0 Lady Topper run that gave WKU a 25-11 lead midway through the second quarter. Smith finished the game with nine points and two rebounds.

“Our bench was crucial, especially with Kayla,” Clark-Heard told the Bowling Green Daily News after the game. “She made some big plays and some wide-open shots to open up the zone they were playing against us. I was really glad to see some of those shots fall for her.”

WKU continued to pour it on throughout the first half. With a 27-16 lead. Redshirt senior guard Micah Jones and redshirt sophomore guard Jaycee Coe each hit a three and junior forward Ivy Brown scored six points during a 14-2 run that extended the Lady Tops’ lead to 41-18. During the two runs, redshirt senior guard Kendall Noble tallied six of her game high nine assists and added 13 points in the game as well. The Lady Tops led 41-21 at the half. The Lady Miners cut the lead to 15 late in the third quarter, but thats as close as they got as the Lady Tops cruised to a 71-54 victory.

WKU turned around to face the Roadrunners in a matchup featuring two of the top four teams in C-USA. The Lady Tops began the game similar to how they started against UTEP, building a 21-11 lead after the first quarter.

Once again, Kayla Smith provided a spark for the Lady Tops off the bench, scoring 10 of her 17 points in the second quarter alone as WKU extended its lead to 31-19 midway through the second quarter.

Slowly but surely, the Roadrunners began to dig into the deficit. A 16-7 UTSA run to end the first half made the score 38-35 at the half.

“Kayla came off the bench and is playing incredible,” Clark-Heard said in a radio interview. “But we couldn’t get any stops. I told them in the locker room at the half that we can’t try to outscore people. One of the situation things that needs to happen is that we have to get stops.”

In the third quarter, Noble caught fire. The defending C-USA Player of the Year set a new school record for points in quarter with 16. Despite Noble’s record quarter, the Lady Tops couldn’t get a stop defensively and allowed the Roadrunners to hang around.

UTSA took its first lead at 60-59 until Noble hit two straight field goals to give the lead back to the Lady Tops going into the fourth quarter. As time wound down, the Lady Tops continued to struggle defensively as the Roadrunners took an 80-77 lead with 21 seconds left. Noble tried to keep WKU in the game and add on to her already impressive night, but UTSA’s Carlie Heineman got a piece of the ball causing it to fall into the hands of fellow teammate Marie Benson.

With the game appearing to be over, Benson traveled with the basketball, giving the ball back to the Lady Tops with just enough time for a catch and shoot.

Coe, arguably the Lady Tops best three-point shooter, got a look at the rim but her shot just rimmed out as UTSA hung on for the 80-77 victory.

The loss dropped WKU to 15-6 (7-2 C-USA) on the season. Their 7-2 conference record places them in a three-way tie with Charlotte and Middle Tennessee State.

WKU is back in action this Thursday at home against Louisiana Tech (10-10, 5-4 C-USA).

“It doesn’t get any easier, not in this conference,” Clark-Heard said. “Credit to UTSA and their players who stepped up. We just have to go back to work and get ready for the next one.”

Reporter Sam Porter can be reached at 270-799-8247 and [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @SammyP14.