Aulbach: WKU gets over the hump to return to SBC title game

WKU junior forward Chastity Gooch (30) shoots over UALR forward Hannah Fohne (25) and guard Di’Mond Jackson (3) during the second half of WKU’s 66-62 win over 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. (Mike Clark/HERALD)

Lucas Aulbach

NEW ORLEANS — It’s never easy when the Lady Toppers play Arkansas-Little Rock.

Coming into Friday’s Sun Belt Conference Tournament semifinal game, UALR had knocked WKU (23-8) out of the tourney in two of the past three years and was the last team to beat the red-hot Lady Toppers back on Feb. 8. The Lady Trojans had the top defense in the Sun Belt and had been to every conference title game since 2008.

It’ll be WKU in the Sun Belt Conference Championship tomorrow night, though. The Lady Toppers came out on top 66-62 in a tough semifinal game Friday afternoon.

Sophomore guard Micah Jones said with the history between WKU and UALR, she knew what her team was going to be up against.

“We knew coming in it was going to be a hard-fought game,” she said. “It’s always close between us, so it does feel good to come out on top.”

It wasn’t always close on Friday. The Lady Toppers rushed out to a 14-point lead early before UALR closed the gap coming into halftime. WKU picked up the pace in the second half, advancing the lead to 15 points with about 15 minutes to go, but that wasn’t safe either — the Lady Trojans tied the game with 3:40 to go, and it took a circus shot from freshman guard Kendall Noble with 32 seconds to go and free throws down the stretch before the Lady Toppers could breathe easy.

Noble wasn’t around for the last two Sun Belt Conference Tournaments, but she made her presence known on Friday. She led WKU with 19 points and dished out four assists to go with four rebounds. Coach Michelle Clark-Heard called her a “silent assassin” after the game.

“You look at her stat sheet and all the way across the line she always does everything,” Heard said. “She’s very good and deceptive at attacking at the basket.”

In WKU’s first round game on Wednesday, junior forward Chastity Gooch was the answer, with 21 points, 14 rebounds, three assists, two blocks and two steals. The Lady Toppers had to spread it out to win on Friday — Gooch finished with 16 points and nine rebounds but hit just 5-of-16 shots. Noble and Jones (17 points) were able to pick up the slack, though.

Heard said options like Jones and Noble are what makes WKU a dangerous team heading into Saturday night’s title game against No. 1 seed Arkansas State.

“I’m super-excited that we have the opportunity to have different options,” she said. “Micah Jones was huge for us. (Junior guard) Chanell Lockhart was great for us coming out of the locker room. We just have a lot of people step up for us and when you’re in this time of the season, that’s what it’s about — team basketball.”

The Lady Toppers jumped a big hurdle in their win over UALR, but they have one more step if they want to make it to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008 — a date Saturday night at 8 p.m. against regular-season champ Arkansas State.

The Lady Red Wolves handed WKU two of its eight losses this season, including an overtime loss in Jonesboro, Ark., on Feb. 5. The team fell at UALR three nights later.

Heard said that two-game to Arkansas was a turning point for the season. The Lady Toppers came back with two losses but haven’t lost since.

“As we left off of our Arkansas trip, that’s what we talked about — being able to take one game at a time and win the games that we needed to win to get to the championship game,” she said.

The stakes are high for Saturday night’s game — the top two regular season teams will fight for the lone Sun Belt berth to the NCAA Tournament.

Heard said she’s expecting a game worthy of the two best teams in the conference.

“You can’t win a championship if you don’t get to the championship game, and that’s our whole goal — to get there and be prepared and ready to go to battle and go to war,” she said.