Forward & Upward: Lady Toppers earn respect on national stage

The Lady Toppers recuperate in their locker room after their 87-74 loss to Baylor during the first round of the 2014 NCAA Divison I Women’s Basketball Championship at the Ferrell Center in Waco, Texas on Saturday. (Jeff Brown/HERALD)

Elliott Pratt

WACO, Texas – If there were people watching WKU’s first round game in the NCAA Tournament against 2-seed Baylor who didn’t know who the Lady Toppers were until that game, they have heard now.

Baylor, a 30-point favorite heading into the game against the Sun Belt Conference Tournament champion Lady Toppers, hadn’t lost on its home floor since 2010.

Traditionally in a No. 15 seed vs. a No. 2 seed matchup, the lesser team has more often than not, lost the game before tip off.


But WKU gained a new-found respect Saturday night in Texas, with the fight it gave in an 87-74 loss to Baylor.

“Coach (Kim) Mulkey told us they were better than a 15-seed and they were,” Lady Bear senior guard Odyssey Sims said after the game. “Give credit to them, their defense was good. They kept making runs when we were trying to pull away. (Chastity Gooch) kept attacking and trying to find ways to get buckets. Give credit to them, they are a very good team and they had a very good year.”

WKU (24-9) ended its in the Women’s NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008, and capped off back-to-back 20-win season under Michelle Clark-Heard, who took over a program that had finished 9-21 the year before she took the job.

Heard took the job on March 22, 2012, exactly two years to the day that her team would go toe-to-toe with one of women’s college basketball’s powerhouses.

“I want to commend Western Kentucky on a great performance,” Baylor assistant head coach Bill Brock said. “They had a great year. They had won 10 in a row coming in here and I thought they played outstanding tonight. I thought that was one of the better shooting performances that anyone has come in here as an opponent and done on our floor. That was just a great shooting performance by their team.”

WKU’s 47.5 percent field goal percentage was its highest percentage in a loss this season.

The loss ended a 10-game win streak for the Lady Toppers. Coach Heard said her team’s ability to play with Baylor until the final buzzer was credit to an attitude the team has had the entire season.

“This is definitely a little emotional for us,” Heard said. “First, I would like to say that my team has put so much into this. They’ve done a ton. For us to come in here and compete the way that they did and go to the last three minutes, it just says a ton about this team and how special they are.

“Throughout the year, this team has rode with everything the coaches have said, and we gave them the game plan and how we needed to prepare, and I think the biggest thing is that those players really believed in this staff.”


Gooch and Noble show out on big stage

Junior forward Chastity Gooch led the Lady Toppers with 23 points and nine rebounds while redshirt freshman guard Kendall Noble had 21 points, eight rebounds, seven assists and three steals.

Gooch had 14 points in the first half, giving Baylor fits with different looks in the post. She was held to just four shot selections in the second half, but she made each one she took.

“The thing that kept giving us a lot of trouble, obviously, in the first half, was guarding Gooch,” Brock said. “She’s an outstanding low post player. She has that body style that’s very hard to match up with. She can take you inside and outside. That was what was happening. She was getting body on body down there with Nina (Davis), and we weren’t doing our work enough early on defense.

“We had to commit to the double-team and start getting some help to try to turn her into a passer in the second half.”


Last game for two seniors

Senior guard Bianca McGee’s three-pointer in the first half to take a brief lead for the Lady Toppers may have been the highlight of the evening, but more importantly, it defined the season that was for WKU.

McGee and fellow senior Chaney Means are the only two players not returning to next year’s team. Means is the only one of the two who has been with the team for four years.

Means logged nine minutes in her last game in a Lady Topper uniform and logged one assist and a rebound. McGee was on the floor for 32 minutes and scored 18 points, shooting 4-of-8 from 3-point range.

After playing to the final buzzer with one of the nation’s premier basketball programs, McGee feels confident that her now former team is on track for the same recognition soon.

“We did it for each other and the program,” McGee said. “Western Kentucky has a great history, and it’s great to have them back in the NCAA tournament. Just be ready, because they’re not going anywhere.”