Trusting the process: Lady Tops spilt conference games over weekend

WKU’s forward Tashia Brown (10) goes for a jump shot over University of Texas at El Paso guard Cameasha Turner (2) during the Lady Toppers’ 85-78 loss to University of Texas at El Paso on Saturday Feb. 6 at E.A, Diddle Arena in Bowling Green, Ky. Brown went for 11-17 in field goals. Shaban Athuman/HERALD

Evan Heichelbech

Behind 17 points from sophomore guard Tashia Brown, WKU held on to beat a hot-shooting University of Texas, San Antonio team by a final score of 72-65 on Thursday night.

After leading by 15 at one point, UTSA got to within 3 points of the Lady Tops’ lead with under a minute to go. The WKU defense struggled to guard the perimeter all night as the Roadrunners shot 53 percent (10-19) from beyond the arc. UTSA guard Kasia Kiejdrowska was tough to defend as she poured in 23 points.

With 18 seconds remaining and one second on the shot clock, redshirt junior guard Kendall Noble banged home a clutch 3-pointer to seal the victory for WKU. She came just four assists shy of a second career triple-double registering 14 points, 11 rebounds and six assists on the night.

“Big-time players make big-time plays, and that’s what I think Kendall is,” Head Coach Michelle Clark-Heard said.

The win against UTSA set up a big showdown with the University of Texas, El Paso on Saturday.

Much was on the line as the top two squads in the conference, WKU and UTEP, vied to take sole possession of first place.

In a physical battle between two Conference USA powerhouses, WKU fell to the Miners by a final score of 85-78.

“We knew it was going to be a ballgame,” Clark-Heard said. “They’re a very good basketball team. We’re going to continue to keep working, and this is a process and I understand that.”

Tashia Brown did everything she could and then some to put her team in a position to win. At halftime, the sophomore had 21 points and was shooting 70 percent from the field. Brown finished the game with 29 points on 64.7 percent shooting for the game.

“[Tashia] was just incredible,” Clark-Heard said. “I was really proud of her because she’s stepping up and being in a role that she’s not used to. She has wanted to be in that position with her and Kendall doing whatever they need to do for this team.”

After leading by six at the half, WKU got off to a slow start in the third quarter. In a game more physical than most, WKU ended up on the wrong side of a 12-4 run as UTEP claimed its first lead of the game early in the third quarter.

The physicality of the game was something the Lady Tops expected and fought through to give themselves a chance.

“It was definitely physical. They were trapping on ball screens and slapping everything, but we knew they were going to do that,” Noble said.

UTEP made more plays in crunch time, and WKU turned the ball over four times in the final 41 seconds of play.

“It’s pretty disappointing. We had the game right in our hands,” Noble said.  “We had turnovers and gave up two threes at the end and let it get away.”

The score was tied only once but featured seven lead changes. Ima Akpan spurred a 7-0 run with about three minutes remaining to give the Lady Tops a one-point lead. Akpan scored seven points in 11 minutes.

“It was crucial for us. We need Ima to continue to keep stepping up,” Clark-Heard said. “That was one of the reasons why we signed Ima. She’s a junior and she’s a winner.”

The other double-digit scorers for WKU were Ivy Brown and Noble. Ivy Brown had 12 points and nine rebounds, and Noble threatened a triple-double again, posting 12 points, eight assists and eight rebounds.

Not only did WKU drop its first home game of the season, but it squandered an early 13-point lead, which makes the loss even bitterer.

“One of my goals was to not lose here at home, so I’m devastated about that,” Clark-Heard said. “Now we just got to get back and get focused and get them in the gym and correct the things we need to so when we go on the road next week, we’ll be ready.”

Bragging rights might have been a secondary incentive in this one because both teams are jockeying for a good position in the conference standings. The Lady Tops don’t play UTEP again in the regular season, but there is a possibility these two teams will meet in the Conference-USA tournament.

“Yeah, I think we’ll be looking forward to that game for sure, but we have to worry about the other ones,” Noble said. “You can’t dwell on this; you have to come back ready to practice and get better.”

The next game on the slate for WKU is a road game at Marshall on Feb. 14. Marshall knocked off UTEP 79-64 at home on Thursday.