Lady Toppers capture Sun Belt title in comeback win

WKU celebrates their 61-60 victory over Arkansas State in the 2014 Women’s Sun Belt Tournament Championship at Lakefront Arena in New Orleans, La. on Saturday Mar. 15, 2014. (Jeff Brown/HERALD)

Kyle Williams

NEW ORLEANS — The 2014 Women’s Sun Belt Conference Tournament title game was a game of runs and although the No. 2-seed Lady Toppers trailed for most of the contest, they made a run when it mattered to capture their 10th Conference Tournament title with a 61-60 victory over No. 1-seed Arkansas State on Saturday night in Lakefront Arena.

WKU (24-8) trailed 53-43 at the 7:16 mark of the second half, but finished the game on a 18-4 run to solidify its first NCAA Tournament bid since 2008 and 17th overall berth in program history.

The Lady Toppers set their sights on a conference title during the regular season and 10-straight wins later, WKU has achieved that goal, according to coach Michelle Clark-Heard.

“I’m just super happy for them because they never gave up,” Heard said. “We just kept fighting and fighting and that’s how it’s been all season. We won 10 straight —10 games straight. We set a goal a while ago and we met that goal. I’m just super proud to be the head coach and to be able to bring a Sun Belt championship back to Western Kentucky.”

Junior forward Chastity Gooch, who was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, finished with 26 points and 12 rebounds to lead the way for the Lady Toppers. Redshirt freshman guard Kendall Noble chipped in 12 points and senior guard Bianca McGee added 10, including eight in the final stretch.

Arkansas State scored the game’s first four points before WKU recorded a 9-0 run to notch a five-point advantage through the first four minutes.

The game of runs continued as the Red Wolves belted out a 12-2 run after trailing the Lady Toppers by two. Noble then answered the ASU run with a three-point play, cutting the Red Wolves’ lead to 22-17 with nine minutes remaining in the first half.

WKU fell behind by eight with four minutes left in the half before a three-pointer from Gooch and a last-second shot from senior guard Chaney Means sent the Lady Toppers into halftime trailing, 33-29.

Gooch led all scorers with 16 points at the break. She also tallied eight rebounds and three blocks through the first 20 minutes. As a team, the Lady Toppers shot just 35 percent from the field compared to ASU’s 43 percent clip. The Red Wolves assisted on 12 of their 14 first-half buckets.

ASU began the second half much like it did the first, scoring the first five points before a Gooch bucket halted the run. However, the Red Wolves scored another five quick points to take a 43-31 lead with just under 16 minutes remaining.

The Lady Toppers began the second half 3-of-13 from the field and to make matters worse, Gooch picked up her fourth foul with 11:20 left, but remained in the game to drill her third three-pointer of the contest on the next possession, bringing WKU within 11 points of ASU with 10 minutes left.

A Noble jump shot and a Gooch left-handed layup brought the Lady Toppers within seven points before ASU answered with a basket — however, McGee answered right back with a three-pointer on the other end, cutting the Red Wolves’ lead to 58-52 with just under five minutes remaining.

McGee continued to come through in the clutch for WKU as she drilled another jumper on the next offensive possession following an ASU shot clock violation to whittle the deficit down to four.

Heard said that despite some early misses, McGee told her she would come up big down the stretch.

“Bianca has done a phenomenal job for this program,” Heard said. “…She’s always hit some big shots and I’m just happy for her…she’s a rhythm shooter and I knew that. I could see it in her eye.”

A basket by Gooch cut the lead to two before McGee nailed another three-pointer to give the Lady Toppers their first lead since the 15:58 mark of the first half at 59-58.

The Red Wolves regained the lead, but Noble’s layup with roughly a minute left sealed the deal for WKU, capping off an 18-7 run and securing a conference title.

With WKU down 13 with under eight minutes left, Noble said the team came too far to be let down, which spurred the comeback.

“We were just saying we have to stick together,” Noble said. “We came this far and we couldn’t let each other down now. We we’re just saying we’re a family and that the best family was going to win, and we stuck together.”