Lady Toppers hold on for victory at Southern Miss

WKU’s guard Ima Akpan (20) dribbles away from a defender during a WKU-University of Texas at San Antonio basketball game on Thursday Feb. 4 at E.A. Diddle Arena in Bowling Green. Kathryn Ziesig/HERALD

Evan Heichelbech

Capturing a conference road win in the 2015-2016 season is perhaps the hardest it has ever been for the WKU women’s basketball team, and Thursday’s 54-53 win at Southern Mississippi was clear evidence of that.

The Golden Eagles are exactly .500 on the season with a 14-14 overall record and a 7-10 record in league play. But what those records obscure is the 12-2 record Southern Miss holds in Hattiesburg.

“We knew it was going to be a ballgame, it always is,” Head Coach Michelle Clark-Heard said in a postgame radio interview. “In this league you’re not going to get 20-point wins. I’m just proud of our kids that they found a way to win. This is a tough place to play.”

The Lady Tops raced off to a 19-4 start in the opening quarter and took a 32-22 lead into halftime. WKU forced 14 first quarter turnovers and appeared to be headed for an easy victory.

But the Golden Eagles came out of the break with nothing to lose and made a comeback in the second half, anchored by an 11-2 run midway through the third quarter that cut the Lady Topper lead to just three.

Eventually, Southern Miss claimed a two-point lead with 2:24 to go in the game, but couldn’t quite hold on.

“I’m just proud that we continued to find a way to finish out here and get the win like we did,” Clark-Heard said.

Eight more Southern Miss turnovers and constant trips to the foul line helped keep WKU in the game, but the real reason the Lady Tops were still in position to win in the final minutes was because of junior point guard Kendall Noble.

“Big time players step up in big moments,” Clark-Heard said.

Noble had a game-high 20 points and closed out the game for WKU, scoring the final seven of her team’s points.

“I’m just proud of her stepping up and making free throws and doing the things that we need [her] to. I know this is March, but we’re still learning and growing,” Clark-Heard said.

Sophomore guard Tashia Brown was the only other Lady Topper in double figures with 11 points on 5-14 shooting from the field.

Southern Miss outgained WKU in some key statistical categories including a 33-31 advantage on the boards and 14 more points in the paint (36-22) on a night when the Lady Tops struggled to shoot the ball. WKU was just 2-17 from the three-point line and shot 37.3 percent from the field.

Sophomore forward Ivy Brown struggled with only seven points and four rebounds. But key contributions from role players Dee Givens (eight points and six rebounds) and Jalyyn McClain (five points and three rebounds) made up for Brown’s off night.

“I think everybody’s stepping up and doing good things when they’re in,” Noble said. “That’s what it takes to be good and I think we’re finally starting to figure it out.”

Up next for WKU is the regular season finale at Louisiana Tech on Saturday at 7 p.m.