Stephens: Heard’s Lady Toppers winning earlier than expected

Brad Stephens

Michelle Clark-Heard’s opening comment at her press conference Monday night summed up what a lot of people in Diddle Arena were thinking.

“If you all had told me we’d be 1-0 in the Sun Belt and 3-0 on the season, I don’t know what I would’ve said to that,” Heard said.

But that’s exactly where WKU is after its latest win, a 62-56 victory over Florida International Monday in both teams’ early-season Sun Belt Conference opener.

The Lady Toppers faced a Panther team that held a size advantage at every position, featured Preseason Sun Belt Player of the Year Jerica Coley and was picked to finish three spots ahead of them in the Sun Belt’s Eastern Division.

It was a tough early test for WKU, and one that a lot of people around the league probably didn’t expect it to win.

Despite being out-rebounded 50-34, registering just four assists and shooting 34 percent on the night, WKU still found a way to get it done.

The Lady Toppers hounded Coley and her teammates, forcing 15 steals, while themselves turning the ball over just 11 times.

They showed poise at the line, hitting 18-of-23 free throws, putting the game on ice late.

And most importantly they showed an energy absent much of last year.

Chastity Gooch, a physical presence from the forward position, has become a double-double machine. Gooch — 3-0 for the first time since her days as a local prep star at Franklin-Simpson High School — filled up the stat sheet with 16 points, 11 rebounds and six steals.

Gooch was a role player last year, but this year she’s gotten the chance to be the star of the frontcourt. After three games and three double-doubles, she’s filled that role well.

Alexis Govan is the team’s quickest player and best offensive threat, but last year she looked caged in trying to fit in Mary Taylor Cowles’ system.

This year she’s free to run free in Heard’s motion offense and she’s thrived. She dropped 12 points and three assists Monday.

“(Heard’s offense) has taken away the aspect of thinking,” Govan said. “We’ve learned quick that when we get to thinking, we’re not that good. But when we relax and we just play and let the game come to us we’re really good.

“Motion’s probably the best thing that could happen to this team with the skills we have.”

Too often last year WKU looked flustered and uptight offensively.

Inconsistent lineups that often kept the wrong people on the bench led to a stagnant offense. One game a player may score 20 points. The next game she may play five minutes.

A constant shuffling from the top of the deck drained hope for offensive consistency and hurt production.

But this year, whether it was necessitated by injury or done by design, Heard’s tighter rotation appears to foster more on-court familiarity.

All five starters played at least 27 minutes — including one, Gooch, who played 39. Three bench players filled in when needed.

Those eight players did a good job communicating with each other on-court and adjusting to different situations throughout the game.

WKU was by no means perfect, as evidenced by a cold shooting night, but these kinds of young teams rarely are.

Young teams coming off a coaching and system change are also rarely undefeated, but that’s right where the Lady Toppers are.

Last year it wasn’t until Dec. 11 that WKU got its third win. Now, right before Thanksgiving break, the Lady Toppers are sporting an unblemished record and an early lead in the Sun Belt standings.

Heard was brought in to bring the energy back to a once-proud program that had stagnated in recent years.

While most fans expected improvement to come, they expected the results to be gradual.

Heard’s Lady Toppers are winning right away.

Obviously there’s a long season left, and you’re remembered as a team for what you do in March, not November.

But for a program that needed a shot in the arm, a 3-0 start is a step in the right direction.

It’s also a sign of more wins to come.