Clark-Heard confident in new squad, leaders

Sophomore forward Tashia Brown (10) tries to get past the defense during the Lady Toppers’ 108-43 win over Ouachita Baptist University on Tuesday at Diddle Arena. Matt Lunsford/HERALD

Evan Heichelbech

Head Coach Michelle Clark-Heard’s Lady Topper basketball team opens its season a week from today against Ball State.

To date, WKU has had one exhibition game, a 108-43 rout of Ouachita Baptist University in Diddle Arena.

There are many unknowns as the team begins the season with numerous new faces entering the program and little in-game action to reference.  

But Clark-Heard has said this team can be successful even if it might take some time.

“I was really proud of our effort,” Clark-Heard said after the win over OBU. 

A big contributor to the overall team effort against OBU last week was sophomore forward Ivy Brown. The Lady Tops will look to her to help fill the gap left by recent graduate Chastity Gooch. 

“[Ivy Brown] had a lot of confidence every time she got the ball,” freshman guard Kayla Smith said after the OBU game. “Every time she got it, she made you feel like she was going to make it, and that’s what she did.”

Although the exhibition game demonstrated many positives, the Lady Toppers know they will need to make some improvements before the season starts.

“We got beat a lot on backdoor cuts and jumping to the ball,” Clark-Heard said. “Defensively, we got to work on some things and our rebounding.”

Clark-Heard knows Brown is capable of delivering in areas where the team still needs to perform. 

“We got to make sure that we’re getting in position and that we’re blocking people out and doing what we need to do,” Clark-Heard said. “There’s a lot of things.”

This team wants to pride itself on turning defense into offense. Clark-Heard, therefore, is stressing the importance of physical play and rebounding this season.

Brown managed a double double in the exhibition contest, grabbing 10 rebounds and 19 points.

Brown said she knows rebounding the ball will be her responsibility this season.

“I think it will be one of my main roles,” Brown said. “That’s what we talked about this past offseason for me — to just work on rebounding. Every day, Coach [Greg] Collins is on me if I’m just standing and watching, and that’s a personal goal for me as well.”

Brown also knocked down two shots from beyond the arc against OBU. Physical presence down low and an ability to shoot from range will make her a difficult player to defend. 

“That’s a part of her game, and we’ve always known that, but what we’re trying to get her to understand is that she has a more rounded game than just shooting threes,” Clark-Heard said. “She has the opportunity to do a lot of different things.”

Having Brown serve as a focal point of the offense will make the Lady Tops a difficult matchup, but the team will also rely on depth of squad to make itself even more of a threat to opponents this season. 

The team captains — redshirt junior guard Kendall Noble, senior guard Micah Jones and senior forward Jalynn McClain — provide veteran leadership for a team largely comprised of underclassman. 

Noble and Jones form a solid backcourt for Clark-Heard and return with starting experience.

Sophomore dual-threat guard and forward Tashia Brown proved last season that she can orchestrate the offense when Noble or Jones cannot. 

Tashia Brown has the potential for a breakout season and provides depth in the backcourt many teams in Conference USA do not have.

While returning players will be important to the Lady Tops, the coaching staff and veteran players also expect an immediate impact from the program’s seven newcomers. 

“I thought [the newcomers] played well for the first game,” Ivy Brown said. “I didn’t see jitters as much as I thought I would. Three of them had double digits, so that’s a pretty good feeling. I think they came out strong especially on the defensive end.”

 Kayla Smith will be a rotation player this season and is very important in transition offense. She had 17 points against OBU, 10 of which came off fast break layups.

“I enjoyed it a lot. Playing for the WKU Lady Toppers for the first time was a great experience,” Smith said. “It’s just all about getting better and working as a team.”

The other two new additions who had double digits were junior transfer guard Ima Akpan and freshman forward Taylor Brown.

Akpan has shown hustle in her play this preseason. She ended her first game as a Lady Topper with 13 points and 9 rebounds.

“Ima has always been one of those players that just plays so hard all the time,” Clark-Heard said. “She makes mistakes like everyone else, but she’s just committed to playing hard. She got going and got excited and got in the game and did a lot of good things.”

Taylor Brown is similar to Akpan in the way she hustles and holds her own in the paint.

“[Taylor Brown] works hard in the post,” Ivy Brown said. “She’s an offensive rebounding machine. She goes hard, and she can jump out of the gym. It’s crazy.”

The Lady Toppers’ regular season kicks off next Thursday in Muncie, Indiana, at 6:00 p.m.