‘92 Lady Topper runner-ups back to The Hill Saturday

The Lady Toppers pray with Head Coach Paul Sanderford in West Lafayette, Ind., after defeating Maryland in the regional finals of the 1992 NCAA tournament. WKU went on to beat Southwest Missouri State before losing to Stanford in the national championship.

Brad Stephens

No WKU men’s or women’s basketball team ever came as close to a national championship as the 1992 Lady Toppers.

The team went on a run all the way to the NCAA Championship Game, eventually falling to Stanford in the national finals.

Along the way the ’92 Lady Toppers upset heavyweights Tennessee and Maryland, beat a tough Southwest Missouri State squad in the Final Four and cemented the legacy of Paul Sanderford as one of the sport’s greatest coaches.

Now, 20 years after the ’92 run, members of that team, along with WKU’s 1985 and 1986 squads, will be back in Diddle Arena this weekend.

Members of those teams will be honored at halftime of the Lady Toppers’ 4 p.m. game on Saturday against South Alabama and then again before tip-off of the men’s game later that night.

Sanderford, who retired from the women’s game in 2002 with 453 career wins, said it’s hard to believe how long ago the run to the title game was.

“It’s already been 20 years — it’s amazing,” said Sanderford, a WKU Hall of Famer. “Time goes by fast.”

In their first game of the ’92 tournament, the Mideast No. 4-seed Lady Toppers pasted No. 5-seed Alabama, 98-68.

A week later, WKU pulled out a 75-70 Sweet 16 win over Pat Summit’s No. 1-seed Tennessee team after trailing by eight at halftime.

Two nights later, the Lady Toppers came back from an 11-point first half hole against No. 2-seed Maryland to claim another 75-70 win, punching a ticket to Los Angeles for the Final Four.

“We beat teams that really no one gave us a chance to beat,” Sanderford said.

Then in the national semis the Lady Toppers held off Midwest No. 8-seed SW Missouri State 84-72, despite four WKU players fouling out.

WKU had to come back less than 24 hours later to face West No. 1-seed Stanford, and lost 78-62 to finish as national runners-up.

The ’92 squad featured some of the most decorated players in WKU history, including guards  Kim Pehlke and Renee Westmoreland, who finished their careers with 1,487 and 1,258 points apiece.

Team member Debbie Hetworth, known in ’92 as Debbie Houk, said she viewed the Lady Toppers’ run that year as destiny.

“The cover of our press guide that year said ‘L.A. or Bust,’” with upperclassmen in jerseys, and underclassmen were all in L.A. attire, with shorts and beach ware,” said Hetworth, now a middle school guidance counselor in Gulf Breeze, Fla. “To put that on the media guide — what foresight for someone.

“And that team just played with great passion.”

Current freshman guard Alexis Govan said the legacy of the ’92 team and others was made clear to her by WKU coaches during the recruiting process.

“It’s a big deal. It’s something to be proud of, and it’s something we want to get back at Western,” said Govan, who had yet to be born when the Lady Toppers made the ’92 run. “We’re just striving to get there again.”

Sanderford said he wasn’t sure of the former player turnout for Saturday’s ceremonies, which will coincide with WKU’s annual Play4Kay game, a breast cancer awareness event.

But he said he still stays in touch with the players from ’92 through phone calls, email and Facebook.

“It’s just a special group and a special bond we had with that particular team,” Sanderford said.