Aulbach: Lady Toppers climb the ladder to a Sun Belt title

WKU freshman forward Bria Gaines (11) celebrates with WKU junior guard Ileana Johnson after 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

NEW ORLEANS — All season long, the motto for the Lady Topper basketball team has been “Climbing the Ladder.” Saturday night at Lakefront Arena, they climbed that ladder — up to the rim to cut down the nets.

The team trailed by as many as 14 in the second half and were behind 53-41 with 7:30 to go, but somehow, WKU is your 2013-14 Sun Belt Conference champion. The Lady Toppers will return to the NCAA Tournament this month for the first time since 2008.

I had 250 words written midway through the second half about how No. 2 seed WKU couldn’t keep up with No. 1 seed Arkansas State, the best team in the conference. I was looking up what time the Women’s National Invitation Tournament bracket would be announced while the Lady Toppers were battling back.

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I was shocked at the outcome. Turns out, I wasn’t alone.

“I thought we were out of gas,” WKU President Gary Ransdell said on the court as the confetti fell after the game. “From the 15-minute mark to the five-minute mark in the second half everything was coming up short and we were really struggling, but boy, they got their second wind.”

Two years ago this squad finished with nine wins. On Monday, they’ll find out what team they’ll face in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Heard has righted the ship at WKU, a former women’s basketball powerhouse. There’s no reason the Lady Toppers can’t keep this momentum going as WKU moves up to Conference USA next season.

“When we put in ‘Climbing the Ladder,’ it wasn’t about cutting the nets down, it was about getting this program back to the status of where it’s been,” Heard said. “We have so much rich tradition here, and that’s what ‘Climbing the Ladder’ was all about.”

None of this would have been possible without a monster three-game stretch from forward Chastity Gooch. She had put the team on her back over the course of the tournament but the junior saved her best for last — Gooch finished Saturday with 26 points, 12 rebounds, three blocks, and played the last 11:20 with four fouls.

Others deserve credit as well. Sophomore guard Micah Jones and redshirt freshman guard Kendall Noble, who returned this season after tearing her ACL last year, were named to the All-Tournament team. Heard had stressed the importance of team basketball all week, and that team brought home the championship.

Noble said the Lady Toppers are more than a team, though — they’re a family.

“We came this far, and we couldn’t let each other down now,” Noble said after the win. “We said we’re a family, the toughest family is going to win, and we stuck together.”

The happiest person after the win might have been junior guard Alexis Govan.

Govan was the preseason Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year before a stress fracture in her left leg in December sidelined her for the rest of the year. She was the first one to climb the ladder to get to the net on Saturday — just like Heard had planned.

“I promised her if we made it here and we won, she was going to be the first one to cut down the net because that’s how much she means to this team,” Heard said. “She’s been phenomenal.”

The Lady Toppers surprised Arkansas State, they surprised President Ransdell, and they surprised me on their way to a Sun Belt title. Their NCAA Tournament opponent better watch some film, because the Lady Toppers have proven that on the right night, they’re good enough to surprise anyone.