Sophomore center Ciera Woods didn’t plan on playing basketball at Western Kentucky.
She didn’t even pick up a basketball until her freshman year of high school.
But now, Woods – a 6-foot-3-inch walk-on – is in position to provide the undersized Lady Toppers (13-3, 6-1 Sun Belt Conference) with some much-needed depth in the post.
“When I first started, I didn’t know any basketball terms,” Woods said. “I didn’t know how to dribble the ball or anything. I was really brand new, but then I feel like I learned I like to compete and get into it. I like the challenges.”
Woods’ first challenge at WKU has been a stout one – get up to speed quick enough to provide a few relief minutes off the bench.
Although she’s still improving her conditioning, the Louisville native played nine minutes Jan. 6 at Arkansas State in her second game since becoming eligible.
She’s the tallest player on the Lady Tops’ roster and one of four players at least 6 feet tall.
“Her biggest strength is defense,” WKU coach Michelle Clark-Heard said. “She’s pretty fundamental when it comes to guarding and getting in the right spot. She still has a lot to go with her conditioning level and the speed of the game. Another thing we can benefit from her once she’s in shape is running the floor and scoring layups.
“She has very good hands, and she can finish around the goal. We’re hoping we have the opportunity to get her better and get her minutes, so her confidence goes up.”
Basketball has been a whirlwind for Woods since she was persuaded to play at Ballard High School as a 6-foot freshman.
One of the Lady Bruins’ assistant coaches convinced Woods to play, and Tim Barnett, a boys’ assistant coach, started by showing her how to shoot a layup.
Barnett, who also coaches the Louisville FOCUS girls’ AAU program, coached Woods in her final two years at Ballard after moving to the girls’ team as an assistant.
“She just continued to develop,” Barnett said. “She was always pretty athletic for her size, and it was just a matter of if she would buy into what we wanted to do for her to get better. Her senior year, she really put in some good work. I think she could have put in more, but she started getting in the gym and working to get better.”
Woods was thrown into the fire by starting for Ballard as a sophomore, one year after she picked up the game.
With improvement over the next two seasons, she decided to follow Ballard teammate Larissa Stafford on the junior-college route to Miami Dade College.
The move south wasn’t a smooth transition.
“I liked Miami, of course, and the school I was at,” Woods said. “But the team and the situation just weren’t a fit for me. I didn’t feel like I got too much out of being there. We didn’t have all the structure we have here, like with weights and strong practices.”
Woods decided to transfer to WKU to be closer to home and met with Heard after urging from Barnett.
Heard remembered Woods from her time as an assistant coach at the University of Louisville, having watched Ballard play during team camps at U of L.
“I remembered she could run and was pretty good at blocking shots,” Heard said. “When you’re looking for post players, you’re looking to see if they can do those things, and run and catch and put the ball in the hole.”
Woods planned to join the team in the fall but had to wait until this semester because of an eligibility issue.
She joined WKU on its two-game road swing to Arkansas and made her Lady Topper debut against ASU. In nine minutes, she netted her only shot attempt, pulled down a rebound and recorded three fouls.
“I really liked it, but I was focusing the whole time on trying to get up and down the court because I’m still not in shape,” Woods said, laughing. “It was pretty great.”
Woods is still trying to get up to speed, she said. She hones her defensive skills every day in practice by facing sophomore forward Chastity Gooch, although Woods admits Gooch “scores pretty easily.”
She’s also been able to watch and learn from Gooch on the offensive end. Becoming more well-rounded will go a long way toward Woods earning a more permanent spot, Barnett said.
“I told her to embrace the opportunity,” he said. “My main thing with her was that if she puts herself in a position to play, she could potentially earn a scholarship. Now, you’re getting your school paid for. But the first step is to play and prove yourself as someone who can help that team.”
Woods knows the Lady Toppers’ lack of size has opened doors for her, she said, and she’s felt some of the pressure that goes along with it.
But as fast as her basketball career has moved to this point, she’s learned to be ready when opportunity knocks.
“Those are big shoes to fill,” she said. “I’m trying to find my place to fit in here, as far as the work ethic you need. (Heard is) not an easy coach and expects a lot out of you, so I’m trying to live up to that.”
Lady Tops host ULL on Throwback Night
WKU will party like it’s 1985 at 7 p.m. today against Louisiana-Lafayette at E.A. Diddle Arena.
The Lady Toppers will wear replica jerseys from the 1985 Final Four season when they face the Ragin’ Cajuns (7-10, 1-7) on Throwback Night.
All tickets to the game are $1, and discounted concessions will be available. The first 500 fans will receive a Throwback Night T-shirt.
“It’s a big deal for me because I remember being recruited by Western in ’85, seeing them play in the Final Four and all those things,” Heard said. “I try to talk to the kids about that and the history.”
WKU is coming off an 86-68 home win Saturday over Florida Atlantic that helped it maintain a share of the Sun Belt Conference lead.
ULL has lost four straight games since knocking off Arkansas-Little Rock in overtime Dec. 29. The Ragin’ Cajuns are led by freshman guards Sylvana Okde (11.2 points per game) and Keke Veal (10.7 ppg).
“They play four guards at all times,” WKU freshman guard Micah Jones said. “They’re looking to get a lot of shots up. They’re really good drivers, they press hard and they’re scrappy. They’re about like every other team in our conference.”
NOTES — The Lady Tops are ranked 21st in the latest College Insider Women’s Mid-Major Top 25 poll released Tuesday. They’re 76th in the RPI. ... WKU is one of two teams in the nation with two players – sophomores Gooch and Alexis Govan – in the top 80 in scoring, along with Tennessee-Martin. ... Of the 62 first-year Division I women’s basketball coaches this season, Heard is one of four to lead his or her team to at least 13 wins so far.