WKU survives ULL, advances to semifinals

Junior guard Chaney Means falls over Louisiana-Lafayette freshman guard Kia Wilridge after being fouled on a break away layup in the second half of their Sunbelt Conference tournament game in Hot Springs, Ark. 

Austin Lanter

Despite poor shooting performance from ULL, the Lady Toppers had to rely on free throws late to defeat the Lady Cajuns 61-57 in the quarterfinals of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament Saturday.

“Survive and advance,” coach Michelle Clark-Heard said. “That’s what it’s all about right now. I’m just really proud of my ball club. I feel like we got the monkey off our back…We got our jitters out the first six, seven, eight minutes and then we started to play Lady Topper basketball.”

ULL (9-20, 3-17 SBC) entered the game coming off of a double overtime victory over North Texas the previous night 80-74. The win was the first for the Lady Ragin’ Cajuns in the Sun Belt Conference Tournament since 2007.

The first basket for the Lady Toppers (21-9, 14-7 SBC) didn’t come until three minutes in, when sophomore forward Chastity Gooch scored in the lane.

At one point in the game, the Lady Cajuns were 8-for-13 from the field, with five of those eight baskets 3-pointers.

“We just knew we had to weather the storm,” junior guard Chaney Means said. “It’s a game of runs and coach just kept telling us that they were going to have a run and it’ll be our turn next. We just believed in each other and stayed together as a team like we’ve been doing all year.”

ULL freshman Keke Veal picked up right where she left off at the end of the season. Veal had at least 20 points three times in the teams last five games. At the half, Veal had already tallied 16 points, including 3-for-5 from the 3-point line.

Gooch led the way for WKU in the first half with eight points and four rebounds.

All five starters for WKU scored in the first half as the team shot 47.6 percent from the field to ULL’s 35.5 shooting percentage.

However, turnovers plagued the Lady Toppers in the first half – they turned the ball over twice as many times as ULL, recording 10 in the first half contributed to the four-point halftime deficit.

“I’ve always told the team that every team is going to make a run,” Heard said. “They made a big one and they just kept making shots. I kept talking to our girls about defense and getting stops and eventually we would be able to put points on the board. The message was to keep playing.”

It didn’t take long for the WKU offense to get going in the second half, though, as the Lady Toppers went on an 8-1 run to begin the half and took their first lead of the day.

At one point in the game, spanning from the first half to the second half, the Lady Cajuns went over seven minutes without scoring a field goal.

With under seven minutes to go in the game, ULL was shooting just 19 percent in the second half and under 30 percent for the game. Despite poor shooting, WKU was not able to pull away, clinging to just a five-point lead.

ULL tied the game with 2:20 left after an 8-2 run, courtesy of a couple 3-pointers, two foul shots, and a layup off of a steal. Junior guard McGee broke the tie with just under two minutes to play with a layup.

McGee sealed the deal for the Lady Toppers, scoring the teams last 10 points, eight of which were free throws to give WKU the 61-57 win.

“Once I hit the first couple of free throws, the team had confidence in me and coach had confidence in me,” McGee said. “When it was time to take the ball out they just said ‘get open’ and they got me the ball.”

Three Lady Toppers ended the game scoring in double figures –  McGee (20), Govan (15), and Gooch (11).

WKU was also able to contain Veal in the second half, holding her to just five points.

“I feel like we played together as a team,” McGee said. “We had our moments in the beginning, but coach just stayed in our ear and told us this was our game and we weren’t going to lose. We came here to survive and advance.”

WKU will play Arkansas-Little Rock at 2:30 p.m. Sunday in the conference semifinals.