Aulbach: Gooch, Lady Toppers turn nail-biter into impressive win

WKU’s junior forward Chastity Gooch (30) shoots over ULL’s forward Adrienne Prejean (14) 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)

Lucas Aulbach

NEW ORLEANS — The Lady Toppers turned to Chastity Gooch with the season on the line Wednesday evening and she delivered, but coach Michelle Clark-Heard would rather talk about the rest of the team than her forward’s monster game — at this point, she expects games like this from the junior.

“Chastity had 21 (points) and 14 (rebounds), but I’m going to tell you something — this was a huge team win,” Heard said after WKU’s 67-61 win over Louisiana-Lafayette in the first round of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament. “We had a lot of people step up. A lot of people made big shots.”

Gooch made a lot of big shots herself — she had nine of WKU’s final 15 points, including a crucial free throw with 1:27 to go to put the Lady Toppers up by three.

On the stat sheet, she’s the name that stands out. Heard, though, said you don’t have to look any further than the end of the first half to see how this was a team win.

The Lady Toppers struggled for much of the night, getting their first lead with 11:28 to go after trailing by double-digits for much of the first half. But Heard said a 9-0 stretch from role players like senior guard Chaney Means and junior guard/surprise starter Ileana Johnson in the final 2:10 of the first half was a big reason WKU will still be in action on Friday.

“Chastity does what Chastity does,” the coach said. “She normally averages a double-double for us, so we depend on her to do that, but we also talked about how everybody else was going to have to step up — and they did.”

Gooch was a force in the paint — her 14 rebounds were a big reason WKU had control of the boards all night. Freshman guard Kendall Noble, who had 10 points and seven rebounds, said with the game on the line, Gooch was the Lady Toppers’ gameplan on offense.

“We knew they couldn’t stop Chastity,” Noble said. “We were trying to get her the ball every time, and we knew if we got her the ball she was going to score. That’s what we did, and it worked out well for us.”

After a red-hot start from behind the three-point arc, the Ragin’ Cajuns missed their final four three-pointers and scored one point in the final 1:49. ULL finished 10-of-21 from three behind a 21-point game from guard Sylvana Okde.

Gooch is the defending two-time Sun Belt Conference Defensive Player of the Year — she takes her job seriously. Withstanding a barrage like that is encouraging, she said, but the Lady Toppers will have to do better if they want to make the Big Dance.

“We’re going to have to focus on defense a lot more,” Gooch said. “Coaches have been stressing to us that that’s what’s going to win us a championship.”

The team might have areas to improve on before Friday’s semifinal game, but Heard said Gooch is one reason she and the rest of the team feel they can beat anyone.

“She’s put this team on her back and that’s what she does,” the coach said. “She just plays so hard. Her teammates have a ton of confidence in her.”