Lady Toppers crowned C-USA champions

WKU Women’s Head Coach Michelle Clark-Heard celebrates with her team minutes after the team’s championship victory against Southern Miss. in the Conference USA tournament championship Friday March 14, 2015 at Legacy Arena in Birmingham, Ala. The victory clinched a NCAA tournament spot for the Lady Toppers and vaulted their record to 30-4. Luke Franke/HERALD

Jonah Phillips

The Lady Topper basketball team defeated Southern Mississippi 60-57 to claim the Conference USA Championship on Saturday in Birmingham Alabama’s Legacy Arena.

 The Lady Toppers now have possession of both the regular season and tournament title in their inaugural season in the league. The win was Head Coach Michelle Clark-Heard’s 100th career win (between Kentucky State and WKU), and was a landmark in C-USA history as the first ever 30-win season as their record now stands at 30-4.

“It feels great! We have worked so hard,” Alexis Govan said. “We came through; they were a really tough team.”

Senior Alexis Govan was named the tournament MVP after combining with senior Chastity Gooch for 40 of the Lady Toppers 60 points in the win off of a combined 14-of-26 from the field. Govan finished with 22 points and shot five-for-six from the free throw line including sinking her last four in the final 22 seconds to win the game. Gooch shot a perfect 5-for-5 from the free throw line and ended with 18 points.

“It’s whatever,” Govan said of being named the tournament MVP. “I asked my teammates to come out there with me but they didn’t, and I think that says it all. I love my teammates and they have put me in the position I am in.”

Despite ending the game hitting just two of its last nine attempts from the field, WKU ended the contest on a 7-0 run, forcing Southern Miss to go scoreless for the final 2:30 of the game.

“This tournament was definitely a battle,” Clark-Heard said. “There are unbelievable teams in this conference, and I’m just really excited and proud of these seniors that they could get another conference championship.”

The first half was characterized initially by seven lead changes before the Lady Toppers put together a 20-2 run over 6:15 to balloon out to a 33-19 lead with 4:12 remaining before the break.

Govan and Gooch combined for 28 of WKU’s 35 first-half points, with Govan along with junior Micah Jones tallying four assists before the break. The team registered 13 assists off of their 15 made baskets in the first half. The Lady Toppers forced 12 first-half turnovers for 10 points, and held a 35-24 lead at the break.  

Kendall Noble and Bria Gaines played big roles in the win as well.  Each notched six points and five rebounds, with Noble adding five steals and three assists in 37 minutes of play. Only Micah Jones with 38 minutes played longer for the Lady Toppers in the final match.

Freshman Tashia Brown, who had a big tournament, came in and played a crucial 19 minutes (13 in the second half). She notched six points, two rebounds, one block and one steal.

In the second half the Lady Toppers, as they did in the two previous tournament games as well, saw their lead slowly dwindle.  In total, the Lady Toppers were outscored 33-25 in the second half, and after shooting 51.7 percent in the first half off of 29 attempts, shot 30.8 percent in the second half off of 26 attempts.

“Every team makes a run,” Govan said. “They are a good team, they love to shoot the ball, and they don’t stop.  But we kept on fighting and kept on fighting and we went on a run just a little bit later.”

Southern Miss tied the game up at 39 at the 13:51 mark after starting the second half on a 15-4 run.  The game would stay within four points for the entirety of the contests, and the championship ended with 9 ties and 11 lead changes.

The Lady Toppers found themselves down 57-56 with 54 seconds left in the game. At the 22 second mark Govan drawed a foul and aced two at the line to go up 57-58.  With these free throws in hand, the Lady Toppers secured the victory, and were given further assurance when Govan sunk two more with 0.4 seconds left on the clock.

The Lady Toppers now await their seeding for the NCAA tournament after gaining an automatic bid to the big dance after claiming the tournament crown.  They will learn their fate Monday night.

“I’m the luckiest coach in the world to be in the position I am in right now,” Clark-Heard said. “Coaching at my alma mater with unbelievable players, and not just on the basketball court but off the floor too.”