Lady Toppers advance to Sun Belt title game with win over UALR

WKU junior guard Chanell Lockhart (4) tries to get around UALR Taylor Ford (2) during the first half of WKU’s game against the University of Arkansas Little Rock in the semifinal round of the Sun Belt Tournament Friday, March 14, 2014, at Lakefront Arena in New Orleans, La. The Lady Toppers won 66-62. (Mike Clark/HERALD)

Kyle Williams

NEW ORLEANS — Despite shooting just 35.9 percent from the field, the No. 2-seed Lady Toppers clinched a spot in Saturday’s Sun Belt Conference Tournament Championship game with a 66-62 victory over No. 3-seed Arkansas-Little Rock on Friday in Lakefront Arena.

Redshirt freshman guard Kendall Noble led the way for WKU (23-8) with 19 points, four assists and four rebounds while sophomore guard Micah Jones and junior forward Chastity Gooch tallied 17 and 16 points, respectively.

The Lady Toppers’ jumped out to an early 16-4 lead by the 11:48 mark of the first half as a result of eight forced turnovers, five of which were steals. Nine of the first 16 Lady Topper points came off UALR turnovers.

UALR whittled the WKU lead down to 21-12 with 7:15 remaining in the first half. The Lady Toppers were just 8-of-23 from the field at that time.

The shooting woes continued for WKU with under five minutes left before a basket by freshman forward Bria Gaines ended a four-minute scoring drought.

UALR regained a 26-25 lead before back-to-back three-pointers from Jones gave the Lady Toppers a 31-26 lead heading into halftime.

WKU shot just 31 percent from the field through the first 20 minutes, but forced UALR into 11 turnovers. The Lady Trojans shot 50 percent from the floor in the first half.

Coach Michelle Clark-Heard said she was pleased with the team’s resiliency after UALR chipped away at the early Lady Topper lead.

“Our goal was to come out of the locker room and make sure we were aggressive and try to jump on them early,” Heard said. “I was really proud of them because we did, but we also they’re a very good basketball team and they came back…I’m just proud of this group because we continue to keep fighting. Never once did we hold our heads down.”

The Lady Toppers belted out a 13-3 run to begin the second half to extend their lead to 44-29 with 14:45 remaining — however, UALR continued its strong shooting performance to tie the game 56-56 with 3:40 left.

Noble converted a floater in the lane to regain the lead for the Lady Toppers before UALR answered with a layup. A jump shot from Jones gave WKU the lead again on the next possession.

With 32.8 seconds left, Noble drove the lane, got fouled, and converted a wild shot, giving the Lady Toppers a 63-58 lead en route to a 66-62 victory.

Noble said she’s not quite sure how the circus shot went in, but she was thrilled with the result.

“I don’t really know how it went in,” Noble said. “I just threw it up and got fouled and it went in, thank the Lord.”

No. 2-seed WKU will play No. 1-seed and regular season champion Arkansas State at 8 p.m. tomorrow for a conference tournament title.

Jones said the team’s been working for a conference championship all season and that the team wants to win it all for seniors Chaney Means and Bianca McGee.

“It’s been our goal all season,” Jones said. “We’ve talked about it. Getting to this championship game and we get here and we have a chance to win. For our seniors, it’s just that much more. We want to win for them…we’re going to go prepare tonight and be ready for tomorrow.”