Lady Tops win home finale behind balanced scoring effort

Freshman forward Dee Givens (4) steals the ball during the first half of the WKU vs. University of Alabama, Birmingham game on Saturday, Feb. 27 at Diddle Arena. Ebony Cox/HERALD

Evan Heichelbech

The Lady Tops closed out their regular-season home slate on Saturday with a 64-55 win over University of Alabama, Birmingham. 

“I was really proud of our effort. This was another team win and I think this time of the season, that’s what you got to do,” Head Coach Michelle Clark-Heard said. “The ball wasn’t falling for us at first and we just talked about in our huddle that we just need to go back to the things that we’ve been doing and that’s guarding.”

UAB jumped all over the Lady Tops in the beginning of the game, shooting 62 percent from the floor and claiming a 20-11 lead after the first quarter. WKU was just 4-14 from the floor in the quarter. 

“I just think that we weren’t really focused when we came out there and then we all huddled together and coach told us to focus on defense,” freshman guard Kayla Smith said. “Once we have that energy on defense it also produces on offense.”

The offense picked up quickly from there on, and thanks to a three-point shooting barrage from sophomore forward Ivy Brown, WKU took its first lead of the game into halftime by a score of 29-27. Brown finished the game with 11 points. 

“I think different people stepped up,” junior guard Kendall Noble said. “We started off very slow and good thing Ivy was hitting threes or we probably would’ve gotten blown out. We stepped up in the second half for a good team win.”

The defensive intensity was key for the Lady Tops in the second half and UAB had no answers for cracking Clark-Heard’s schemes.

“I think our intensity wasn’t as high as it needed to be,” Clark-Heard said.

WKU forced 23 turnovers after forcing MTSU into 21 on Thursday. UAB’s shooting percentage cooled off as the Blazers shot 48 percent for the game.

Tashia Brown was WKU’s leading scorer with 12 points. Noble had 11 points and 11 assists for a double-double and Smith scored all nine of her points in the fourth quarter. 

“Night in and night out, Tashia and Kendall are getting everybody’s best defender on them, so when other people can step up and make shots, that makes you a great team, and that makes it hard for the other team to guard you,” Clark-Heard said.

Saturday’s contest was also the last home game for senior forward Jalyyn McClain. McClain is the first four-year player for Clark-Heard and is beloved by her team because of her character. 

“She’s like the perfect teammate,” Noble said. “She’s so selfless, she doesn’t care if she scores or rebounds or anything. She just wants to win and that’s what it’s supposed to be like.”

McClain has started 25 of 27 games this season for the Lady Tops and has made 68 career starts and played in 122 games. She averages 3.4 points and 2.9 rebounds per game and scored her 500th career point Thursday against Middle Tennessee. McClain had four points, six rebounds and an assist in her final game in Diddle Arena and was honored after the game.

“It was great. Words can’t express how special Jalyyn has been to me as a coach and to this program,” Clark-Heard said. “When I got the job Jalyyn and Micah [Jones] had the opportunity to go somewhere else but they decided to stay. I’m really proud of Jalyyn and her growth in me challenging her on the court and off the court, and she’s just a phenomenal young woman.”

Saturday’s win moved WKU’s record to 12-1 at home for the season and keeps the Lady Tops at second place in the conference.

“We always talk about if you’re going to have a chance to win championships you gotta win your games at home,” Clark-Heard said. “We want Diddle to be a hard place for people to come in and play, and we have an amazing atmosphere and great fans, and I’m really proud of that.”

WKU has two road games remaining as it heads into the final week of the season.

The first contest will be against Southern Mississippi on Thursday followed by a match up with Louisiana Tech on Saturday.

“We’ve got to come back focused,” Smith said. “Yes, we got this win but we have to move on and keep on focusing to get better and continue winning. We don’t want to go backwards.”

Tip time is set for 6 p.m. on Thursday in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.