Lady Tops battle past UT Martin to earn a spot in WNIT sweet sixteen

WKU’s guard Kendall Noble (12) goes for a layup as Tennessee Martin guard/forward Shy Copney (44) defends during the second round of the WNIT tournament between the Lady Topper and the Tennessee Martin Skyhawks on March 21 at Diddle Arena. Shaban Athuman/HERALD

Evan Heichelbech

The WKU women’s basketball team found itself in an unfamiliar situation when it trailed UT Martin (22-9, 14-2 Ohio Valley Conference) 33-24 at halftime of Monday’s WNIT second round game in Diddle Arena.

WKU held a 13-9 lead after one quarter of play, and then the Skyhawks went off from distance. UT Martin hit five of its seven second–quarter three-point attempts—compared to WKU’s 0-7 start from deep—which helped them build a 28-15 lead midway through the second quarter.

“We knew they weren’t second in the country in threes for no reason,” Head Coach Michelle Clark-Heard said. “We were going to have to make sure we made some adjustments and I was really proud of our group coming out of the locker room.”

The Lady Tops battled back in the second half for a 64-57 victory and a spot in the final sixteen of the WNIT. 

“I was just really proud of this group. We continued to find a way to fight and do the things we needed to figure it out,” Clark-Heard said. “They bought into everything we were talking about in the locker room and I think it showed.”

Redshirt junior guard Kendall Noble was held scoreless until the four-minute mark in the second quarter. There was no triple-double watch at halftime of this game for the Conference USA Player of the Year, but luckily her starting backcourt mate came out firing.

“I challenged Kendall at halftime [too],” Clark-Heard said. “This group is very coachable and that’s what I love about them.”

Sophomore guard Tashia Brown’s hot shooting was the only thing that kept WKU in the game.

“She was very important— she kept us in the game in the first half,” Noble said. “Nobody else could make a shot or was really trying to make a shot. She’s a big-time player and that’s what they do.”

Brown was 12-22 from the field and scored 17 of her 32 points in the first 20 minutes of action.

“Coach Heard kind of got on me and said I’ve been kind of sitting back lately and not being aggressive like I usually do,” Brown said. “She just wanted me to come out there and play my game.”

Brown’s teammates gave her a hand in the second-half, however, as WKU regained the lead with five minutes remaining in the third quarter on back-to-back buckets from sophomore forward Ivy Brown.

WKU outscored the Skyhawks 25-12 in the third quarter and felt the momentum switch completely in its favor.

“[Coach Heard] said that we weren’t guarding and if we wanted to get beat then [we should] continue to not guard. We just had to come out here and bring some energy,” Tashia Brown said.

Noble went for 13 points in the third quarter alone and finished with 15 points, 12 assists and eight rebounds to eventually threaten a third career triple-double.

“She almost had another triple-double. Kendall’s just great,” Tashia Brown said. “That’s just what she does, she’s a great all-around player and I don’t know anybody else like her.”

The real story of the second half for WKU was the defensive intensity.

“They were getting some easy looks in the first and second quarter and we just wanted to make sure we bumped up the pressure and make sure we were guarding,” Clark-Heard said. “Our full-court zone press helped out a lot especially in that third quarter and helped us come back and get the lead.”

UT Martin committed 18 turnovers to just 10 by WKU and allowed the Lady Tops to cash in on 19 points off of those turnovers.

WKU was still without freshman forward Taylor Brown who is dealing with personal issues, according to Clark-Heard. 

The win moved WKU to 26-6 overall and into the Sweet Sixteen of the WNIT. Up next for WKU will be a road game at St. Louis vs. the Billikens at 7 p.m.