Pratt: Lady Topper basketball restarts the climb in Friday exhibition

Sophomore guard Kierra Muhammad dances during her introduction during Hilltopper Hysteria on Oct. 18 at Diddle Arena. The event featured player introductions for both the men’s and women’s basketball teams, scrimmages, a three-point contest and a slam dunk contest. Brandon Carter/HERALD

Elliott Pratt

It’s just an exhibition, but we will finally get a glimpse of this journey, ‘to be continued,’ with Lady Topper basketball.

I’m always interested in the annual slogans for each of the sports teams. Bobby Petrino brought Showtime to football last year. Men’s basketball had that Never Say Never thing (still can’t get over the Justin Bieber connection), and the Lady Topper basketball team was climbing the ladder and reached the NCAA Tournament and played Baylor toe-to-toe in Texas.

At first glance, I thought their new slogan of ‘to be continued’ was silly. But really, I am indeed curious as to what happens next.

That first chance comes Friday night in an exhibition match against Bellarmine in Diddle Arena at 7 p.m. CT.

No, this game doesn’t count for anything, but there’s some special interest in the matchup.

Crystal Kelly, WKU women’s basketball’s career leader in points and rebounds, will walk out of a different tunnel and sit on a different bench and wear different school colors, this time as a third-year assistant coach.

Kelly knows first-hand what the Lady Toppers are going through with using young talent. She was a young talent herself when she arrived on the Hill as 2004 Miss Kentucky Basketball.

Freshman Ivy Brown comes to WKU as the first Miss Kentucky Basketball to play for the Lady Toppers since Kelly.

The point here is WKU has three freshmen — Ivy Brown, Tashia Brown and Jaiveonna Norris — who could see significant minutes on the floor. In her freshman year for the 2004-05 season, Kelly averaged 19 points and 10 rebounds per game.

“I was fortunate enough to have pretty good leadership, and as a freshman, that’s what you need,” Kelly said. “They don’t know what is expected and how to do this. So they are going to need really good leaders in their upperclassmen.”

I don’t think they’ll have a problem in that category.

Obviously, seniors Chastity Gooch and Alexis Govan are the central faces of the team that can guide these freshmen, but junior Micah Jones and redshirt sophomore Kendall Noble emerged last year as floor generals for the next few seasons.

There’s no spacing in the talent level of classes – it’s pretty even from seniors to freshmen.

It boils down to experience, and if there’s anything coach Michelle Clark-Heard has done, it’s prove that inexperience isn’t a problem.

Everyone knows how this story goes. MCH takes a Mary Taylor-Cowles team that finished 10-21 before her arrival and turned a 180 on everyone with a 22-11 record and a WNIT win in Diddle. Then last year, they win the Sun Belt Tournament and shake the women’s basketball scene at Baylor.

Now, they enter the year having received five votes in the USA Today Preseason Coaches Top 25 Poll.

It’s nearly reminiscent of the dominant days of Kelly. Before last season, WKU hadn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since Kelly’s senior year in 2008.

Friday night, these two WKU success stories meet each other face-to-face in exhibition mode. For the current Lady Toppers, they restart an unfinished journey.

“It speaks a lot of what coach Heard has come in and done with us,” senior guard Alexis Govan said. “She’s pushed us to the next level and it shows that people appreciate how hard we’ve been working and what we’ve been trying to do and where we’re trying to take Western.”

What Heard has done is earn this team the respect of the powers that be on a national scale. What happens next with the Lady Toppers is to be continued.