Stephens: Clutch McGee shoots WKU to semis

Junior guard Bianca McGee shoots over teammate sophomore guard Alexis Govan and Louisiana-Lafayette freshman guard Keke Veal in the second half of their Sunbelt Conference tournament game in Hot Springs, Ark. 

Brad Stephens

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — Bianca McGee was sharp Saturday on a day when WKU wasn’t.

McGee scored a team-high 20 points, including the Lady Toppers’ last 10, to send No. 3 seed WKU into the Sun Belt Conference Tournament Semifinals with a 61-57 win over No. 11 seed Louisiana-Lafayette at Convention Center Court.

McGee’s layup with 1:58 left broke a 51-51 tie. Her eight free throws on eight attempts in the final 1:20 held off any Ragin’ Cajun (10-21) hopes of taking back the lead.

“She didn’t miss a free throw,” ULL guard KeKe Veal said of McGee. “I mean if she’d have missed some I think we would’ve had a better chance of coming back and taking the lead from ’em.”

Instead McGee made every single one, putting the Lady Toppers (21-9) in the Sun Belt semis.

Her performance was especially important in light of ULL’s gameplan. Cajuns coach Gary Brodhead circled WKU’s two First-Team All-Sun Belt performers, Alexis Govan and Chastity Gooch, and told his girls to deny them the ball.

Gooch ended up with 11 points on six shots — more than seven field goal attempts per game below her average.

Govan had 15 points of 6-of-14 shooting, but was never really able to take over the game offensively like she’s so capable of doing.

That meant McGee, often the forgotten component of WKU’s top scoring trio, was going to have to put the ball in the basket.

She did that on two free throws with 1:20 to play, putting the Lady Toppers’ lead at 55-51.

“When she hit the first two, I said you’re getting the ball every time,” fellow junior guard Chaney Means said. “She’s always been clutch.”

From then on McGee kept getting the ball, kept getting fouled and kept converting at the line.

After ULL’s Jasmin Mills cut the lead to 55-53 with two free throws, McGee hit a pair of foul shots herself to put WKU back up by four with 46 seconds left.

Mills cut the lead to two again with a layup and McGee answered with another pair of free throws to make it 59-55 with 18 seconds to play.

The Cajuns’ Ashley Benjamin hit to free throws to make it a 59-57 game with 10 seconds left.

Once again, McGee answered with a pair of free throws to make the score 61-57, putting the win on ice.

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

The game would’ve been completely different had the Michigan City, Ind., native missed any of those foul shots. But she swished all eight of them, buying the Lady Toppers their first semifinal berth in two years.

Add that to contributions by Means (four points, four steals), LeAsia Wright (four points on 2-of-3 shooting) and Micah Jones (five points, including a 3-pointer), and the Lady Toppers avoided a disappointing quarterfinals exit.

There will be plenty of room for improvement when WKU takes the Summit Arena court against No. 2 seed UALR at 2:30 p.m. Sunday.

Priority No. 1 will be reversing Saturday’s poor assist-to-turnover ratio — six assists to 16 giveaways.

The Lady Toppers will also need to get Govan and Gooch the ball early and often, something they struggled to do against ULL.

WKU, which was out-rebounded 38-32 by the Cajuns, will also have to get better on the boards. You can get away with being out-rebounded by a tournament’s last seed team, but not by the No. 2 seed.

But the important objective Saturday was simply to survive and advance. Bianca McGee allowed the Lady Toppers to do just that.