Lady Toppers punch ticket to C-USA championship

WKU senior guard Alexis Govan (21) shoots a contested jumper during the team’s Conference USA tournament semifinal matchup against Old Dominion University Friday March 13, 2015 at Legacy Arena in Birmingham, Ala. Despite leading by 22 points early in the first half the game became closely contested in the final seconds. WKU would go on to win 61-52 and advance to the Championship game tomorrow Saturday March 14 against Southern Mississippi University. Luke Franke/HERALD

Jonah Phillips

In nail-biting fashion, the Lady Toppers managed to give up a 22-point lead but still hold on and defeat Old Dominion 61-59 in the semi-finals of the Conference USA tournament.  WKU will face Southern Miss Saturday in the finals at 7 p.m. at Legacy Arena.

The Lady Toppers exploded out of the gate, going on a 24-2 run to start the game at the 13:03 mark of the first half. Keeping Old Dominion’s Jennie Simms to just two first-half points, the Lady Toppers held a 37-19 lead at the break.

“Just the resilience of this team, and the way different players stepped up at different times,” Head Coach Michelle Clark-Heard said. “That is what the coaching staff is most proud of.  We challenged them in the huddle, and told them that we needed to get some stops and make sure that we were putting ourselves in a position to score.”

Kendall Noble led the Lady Toppers at the break with 11 points, but the difference in the first half proved to be rebounds and turnovers.  WKU out-rebounded ODU 27-20 in the first half and forced seven Lady Monarch turnovers while only giving up four.

WKU shot 16-of-36 from the field in the first half and held ODU to 7-of-32 from the field in that time.

Coming out of the break, the same problems the Lady Tops were able to give Old Dominion at the beginning of the game came back to haunt the Lady Tops in the second half.

The Lady Monarchs went on a 7-0 run in the second half to cut the Lady Toppers’ lead to 11. With ODU registering 10 offensive rebounds in the first five minutes of the second half, the Lady Toppers found themselves back-pedaling.

“It was all mental,” Govan said of the second-half. “We just needed to lock in and weren’t really there and coach Heard just kept challenging us and challenging us and eventually she just hit the right button and got us into gear.”

Despite the 22-point advantage WKU held during the first half, ODU managed to erase it, tying the game at 48 with 9:34 remaining in the game.  At this point, WKU had been outscored 29-11 in the second half and after a quiet first half, Simms was leading her team with 23 second-half points and left the Lady Monarchs in a position to win the game.

“This one is a hard one,” Old Dominion Head Coach Karen Barefoot said. “I’ve never been so proud to be their coach. We played very hard—a lot of heart, toughness.  I though second half we were tough together for 20 minutes… I mean players making plays, diving on the floor, playing with heart.  They played some inspiring basketball to get us back in the game.”

The Lady Toppers never trailed until the 7:53 mark in the second half. With two free throws the Lady Monarchs extended the lead to 5.  This would be the largest lead the Lady Monarchs would hold all game.

A jumper from Alexis Govan tied the game at 53, but after extending the lead to two at 53-55, Simms pulled it back for the Monarchs at 55. Tashia Brown spurred a 4-0 run afterwards to bring the score to 59-55.   

“Tashia Brown is a big-time player,” Clark-Heard said. “What I love about her and her teammates is they are always telling her that, and that gives her the confidence to make plays… She has totally not played like a freshman this year, coming off the bench and making big, big plays for us.”

Simms would pull it back one more time at 59-59 with 29 seconds remaining before two Alexis Govan free throws with 6.8 seconds left lifted the Lady Toppers to victory, despite being outscored by ODU 40-24 in the second half.

 “Right now in this moment, I want them to enjoy that there are two teams left, and we are one of them,” Clark-Heard said. “As a staff, what we will do is go back and make the adjustments and have a game plan.”

Both teams went to their respective conference tournament championships last season, with Southern Miss losing to MTSU 84-55 in the 2014 C-USA championships, and WKU beating Arkansas State 61-60 in its its last conference tournament in the Sun Belt.

The game pits the Lady Toppers against the only conference foe to beat them in Diddle Arena this season.