Lady Toppers rally to force OT, defeat ECU in WNIT

Sophomore guard Alexis Govan high-fives Kathryn and Rosemary McCrudden, ages 8 and 3, respectively. “Are you guys going to play basketball?” Govan asked. “Yeah!” they said.

Austin Lanter

It took an overtime period, but the Lady Toppers defeated East Carolina 88-77 in the first round of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament Thursday night at Diddle Arena.

The win is the first postseason win for the program since 2007, which was also in the WNIT, when WKU defeated Hofstra.

“What can I say? This team continues to amaze me,” coach Michelle Clark-Heard said. “We never gave up. I am so proud of them. They keep fighting…I’m just really proud of the group because they never gave up.”

The Lady Toppers berth in the WNIT is the 26th postseason appearance for the team in the last 30 years and the 10th appearance in the WNIT. The team last made the WNIT in 2010, when they lost to Illinois in the first round.

The Lady Tops improved to 13-11 all-time in the WNIT, including 10-3 at Diddle Arena.

WKU started the game off strong, jumping out to a 13-4 lead just over four minutes into the game.

East Carolina would take its first lead of the game midway through the first half. The lead changed six times during the first half and was tied three.

With just under seven minutes to play, the two teams had each made 10 shots but had drastically different field goal percentages. The Lady Toppers boasted a 58.8 percent percentage, while ECU was shooting just 41.7 percent.

The two teams would go into the locker rooms at halftime tied at 32.

The first half was one of runs for both teams. WKU went on a 6-0 to open the game and proceeded to go on two 7-0 runs later in the half. The Lady Pirates, on the other hand, had a 7-0 run of their own to tie the game at 16 and then ended the half on an 8-2 run to close out the half.

After starting the game shooting over 60 percent, the Lady Toppers ended the half just four for their last 12, ending with a 48% field goal percentage for the first half. ECU shot just 35 percent on the half, but was four-for-nine from three-point land.

ECU guard Celeste Stewart led all scorers with 13 first-half points while sophomore guard Alexis Govan and sophomore forward Chastity Gooch of WKU had 11 each to lead WKU. Gooch also pulled in five rebounds in the first half.

The Lady Pirates started the second half even stronger than WKU started the first. ECU went on a 10-0 run to being the half before Govan hit a free throw three minutes in to end the run.

“They came out in the second half and punched us in the face a little bit,” Govan said.

WKU came within one point of ECU midway through the second half after a three from Gooch, but the Lady Pirates stretched the lead back to eight with just under seven minutes to play. At this point in the game, ECU was shooting 62.5 percent from the field in the second half to WKU’s 26 percent.

With 30 seconds to play in regulation, freshman Colleen Marshall went to the line for ECU looking to stretch the lead to five. Marshall, however, missed both shoots and Govan went down the floor and hit a three with under 10 seconds to play to send the game into overtime, knotted at 73.

“When they came to the bench (after regulation) I knew that they were ready to take it over,” Heard said. “That’s what they were talking about and that’s when kids want to win.

WKU shot just 34.4 percent from the field in the second half, but the Lady Pirates could not pull away and finish the Lady Toppers off, despite leading the whole half.

“We just had our juice,” junior guard Bianca McGee said. “We went up in the second half that we wasn’t going to lose. We were not going to leave this gym with an ‘L.’ We all told each other ‘let’s go,’ we have five minutes to dig deep and let’s get the win, let’s leave with the win.”

In overtime, freshman guard Micah Jones hit a three to give WKU a two-point lead. Less than a minute later, Gooch hit her second three of the game to extend the lead for the Lady Tops. In the end, WKU would outscore the Lady Pirates 15 to four in overtime to advance to the second round of the WNIT.

“Something in us took over and we were not going to lose that game,” Govan said. “…We gave each other the fist and we know that symbol and we just took over.”

Gooch led the Lady Tops with 26 points and 12 rebounds while Govan followed right behind with 25 and 11.

Next up for the Lady Tops will be the Auburn Tigers at 2 p.m. on Sunday at Auburn.

“It’s going to bring a challenge and we’re going to have to get ready quick,” Heard said. “We’re going to have to do a lot of different change-ups defensively with them. I’m really excited and I know our girls will be excited and we’ll be ready to go…It’s a big opportunity for this program.”