Aulbach: It’s official – Lady Topper basketball is back

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)

Lucas Aulbach

It took two years for the Lady Toppers to climb the ladder from worst to first in the Sun Belt Conference.

Last season was a historic turnaround for the WKU women’s basketball program – first-year coach Michelle Clark-Heard led the Lady Toppers to a 21-win regular season. The 12-game improvement from a season before was the best the Sun Belt Conference had ever seen.

A second-round loss to Arkansas-Little Rock held the Lady Toppers back from advancing to the NCAA Tournament, though.

This year, WKU’s last run through the Sun Belt, Heard’s team completed the climb up that ladder, coming out on top in dramatic fashion over No. 1 seed Arkansas State in Saturday’s Sun Belt Conference tournament championship.

WKU turned to Heard in March 2012 to turn around a team coming off a nine-win season. In March 2014, that squad is at the top of the Sun Belt.

Heard has praised her team’s development since Day One – even after last season’s tournament loss she said the Lady Toppers were ahead of schedule in their development.

But Saturday, even she admitted she was a little surprised at how fast the change around the program had come.

“I just knew that our whole process was to keep getting better and it’s pretty ironic, that that’s why we put in ‘Climbing the Ladder,’” she said, referring to the team’s motto throughout this season. “It wasn’t about cutting the nets down. It was about getting this program back to the status of where it’s been.”

One of the most impressive parts about this season in particular was the fact that the Lady Toppers were able to get so far without Alexis Govan, the preseason Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year, after she was injured in December. The Lady Toppers completed their entire Sun Belt schedule without Govan — the team hasn’t lost in over a month.

Former Lady Topper coach Paul Sanderford — who knows a thing or two about winning — said Heard’s success without Govan is what sticks out to him.

“Her best player, the preseason Player of the Year, was sitting on the bench in street clothes,” he said on Monday. “I don’t know of many teams that could have handled that kind of adversity and win a championship. That’s remarkable in itself.”

The WKU women’s basketball program is a historic power, with nine Sun Belt Conference Tournament titles, 16 NCAA Tournament appearances (that figure will rise to 17 this weekend), three Final Four appearances and a National Championship game against Stanford in 1992.

Heard was in uniform for the Lady Toppers for four of those postseason appearances, playing forward for WKU from 1986-90. She understands the history surrounding the program as well as anybody.

“We have so much rich tradition here,” she said Saturday in New Orleans. “That’s what ‘Climbing the Ladder’ was all about… I’m just proud of the girls for buying in.”

Next year will be new ground for the Lady Toppers. With WKU’s move to Conference USA this summer, the 2014-15 season will feature stronger competition and reignited rivalries against Middle Tennessee and Louisiana Tech.

The Lady Toppers will also get more national respect and have a better shot at competing for a postseason berth, though – they’ll have more chances to keep climbing that ladder.

I know Heard and the rest of the team are looking forward to it. But this week, they have March Madness to prepare for, and that’s something they haven’t had the privilege of doing in six years.