Lady Toppers use strong second half to oust ULL 67-61

WKU’s junior guard Chanell Lockhart (4) shoots a three-pointer during the first half of WKU’s game against the University of Louisiana Lafayette in the first round of the Sun Belt Tournament Wednesday, March 12, 2014, at Lakefront Arena in New Orleans, La. (Mike Clark/HERALD)

Kyle Williams

NEW ORLEANS — The Lady Toppers didn’t claim their first lead until the 11:31 mark of the second half, but used strong play down the stretch to secure a 67-61 victory over No. 7-seed Louisiana-Lafayette on Wednesday night in Lakefront Arena.

WKU (22-8) has now won eight consecutive games dating back to the regular season.

Junior forward Chastity Gooch led the way for WKU with 21 points, 14 rebounds, three assists, two blocks and two steals.

The Lady Toppers got off to a slow start from the field, sinking just seven of their first 22 shots through 12 minutes of the first half.

ULL guard Sylvana Okde nailed one of her five first-half three-pointers with 2:37 remaining in the half, giving the Ragin’ Cajuns a 33-23 lead — their largest lead of the game. ULL converted six of its 10 first-half three-point attempts and finished 10-of-21 from beyond the arc.

Coach Michelle Clark-Heard said that she was proud of her team for overcoming ULL’s hot shooting.

“It’s all about survive and advance,” Heard said. “I’m just super proud of this group. We fought and I tell you what, I give Lafayette a ton of credit. Those young kids shot the ball incredibly…I’m just proud of this group that we were able to figure out, towards the end, how to get some stops.”

Junior guard Chanell Lockhart, senior guard Chaney Means and junior guard Ileana Johnson responded to ULL’s hot streak by closing the half on a 9-0 run off three consecutive three-pointers, slicing the ULL lead to just one point, 33-32, heading into halftime.

Gooch was the high scorer for WKU at the break with six points. She also tallied seven rebounds. The Lady Tops outrebounded the Ragin’ Cajuns 19-13 through the first 20 minutes.

The Lady Toppers were cold again to begin the second half, making just two of their first seven shot attempts through four minutes before freshman forward Bria Gaines scored four straight points to bring WKU back within one, 41-40, with 13:31 remaining.

WKU’s first lead came at the 11:31 mark of the second half in the form of a Lockhart jump shot, giving the Lady Toppers the 44-43 advantage.

WKU was able to secure a lead because of its improved defensive play in the second half, according to redshirt freshman guard Kendall Noble.

ULL quickly answered WKU’s run and held a 56-51 lead before Gooch belted off four straight points, knotting the score at 56-56.

Gaines proceeded to give WKU the lead on the next possession with just 3:56 remaining.

Gooch then continued her second-half dominance, converting a three-point play to give the Lady Toppers a 63-60 lead with 1:24 remaining. Gooch tallied 15 points and 7 rebounds in the second half.

Heard was impressed with Gooch’s dominant play, but said the quarterfinal victory was a team effort.

“She’s put this team on her back,” Heard said. “And that’s what she does. She just plays so hard and her teammates have a ton of confidence in her…we had a lot of people step up…this was a team win.”

ULL managed just one point in the final 1:16 as senior guard Bianca McGee and sophomore guard Micah Jones made four-straight free throws, sinking the Ragin’ Cajuns, 67-61.

WKU will advance to play the winner of Wednesday’s game between Troy and Arkansas-Little Rock on Friday at 2:30 p.m.

In order to prevent another slow start, Gooch said the Lady Toppers need to focus on defense moving forward.

“We’re going to have to focus on defense a lot more,” Gooch said. “Coach has been stressing to us that that is what’s going to win us a championship, so we’re just going to focus on defense.”