The young Western Kentucky women’s basketball team played beyond its years Wednesday night.
The Lady Toppers (18-6, 11-4 Sun Belt Conference) overcame a 13-point deficit in the first half against Florida Atlantic, then avoided a near collapse and escaped with a 64-61 win at FAU Arena in Boca Raton, Fla.
“This team showed resilience,” WKU coach Michelle Clark-Heard said. “We made a ton of mistakes, but when it counted, we stepped up. We played as a group and found a way to win, and to be a good team, that’s what you have to do. We grew up tonight.”
The Lady Tops’ 13-point deficit is the largest they’ve overcome this season. They’ve rallied from at least eight points down three times in conference play.
The victory was WKU’s first at FAU since Feb. 14, 2010.
“We haven’t won here since I’ve been at Western,” junior guard Chaney Means said. “It’s hard to come to Florida and get these wins, so that was a good start to our road trip.”
The Lady Tops had to overcome a disjointed start and a wild finish to snap their Sunshine State slide. Sophomore forward Chastity Gooch picked up her second foul at the 18:03 mark of the first half. Sophomore guard Alexis Govan recorded her second foul five minutes later, and WKU was charged with six offensive fouls in the first half.
“I was thinking, ‘Not again,’ ” Govan said. “Not foul trouble again. But when (Gooch) came back in, she stepped it up and you wouldn’t even know she had two fouls.”
WKU fell behind 17-4 with 11:03 to play in the first half, and FAU forward Chenise Miller scored seven of the Owls’ first nine points with Gooch on the bench.
Heard decided to gamble and put Gooch back in the game down 12, and the Lady Tops surged to claim the lead with a 19-6 burst. Govan’s layup with 1:45 to play before halftime put WKU up 28-27.
“I knew I had to put Chastity back in, or we were going to fall too far behind,” Heard said. “She kept playing and didn’t get in a situation to get more fouls and have to sit.”
Govan scored 31 points to pace the Lady Tops, who shot 48.2 percent from the field – including 56 percent in the second half – and outrebounded Florida Atlantic 43-31.
They finished the first half up 31-30 and took the lead for good with 9:13 to play on a jumper by freshman guard Micah Jones, although it wasn’t easy from there.
WKU never stretched its lead to more than five, and Florida Atlantic (11-13, 8-8) squandered three attempts to win or tie in the final 10 seconds.
Jones missed the front end of a bonus with 14.4 seconds left, and Govan fouled at the other end with 10.4 seconds on the clock.
The Owls missed their front end, and after WKU junior guard Chaney Means netted two free throws with six seconds remaining, FAU’s Kimberly Smith missed a 3-point attempt from midcourt that could’ve tied the game.
The FAU bench contested that there was contact by WKU freshman guard LeAsia Wright on Smith’s shot.
The Lady Tops’ plan on the play was to double-team the inbounds pass and then intentionally foul to prevent a game-tying 3, Heard said.
Gooch missed two more free throws with 1.2 seconds left, but Smith’s desperation heave at the buzzer clanked off the backboard.
Gooch failed to record a double-double for the first time in five games but finished with six points, 12 rebounds, three assists, three steals and two blocks. She played 33 minutes and recorded three fouls despite the early benching.
Four Lady Toppers logged multiple assists.
“This team’s chemistry and the way they look for each other is what I really love,” Heard said. “Chastity didn’t have a double-double, but she had three huge assists for Alexis when she got double-teamed. It’s awesome that they know to get the hot hand the ball.”
Junior guard Bianca McGee had eight points and three steals, and Means scored four points and tied a career high with seven rebounds.
Means was one of four WKU players who grabbed at least five rebounds. The Lady Tops’ four reserves who played – Wright, Jalynn McClain, Ciera Woods and Ileana Johnson – contributed a combined 32 minutes, eight points and 11 rebounds in the first half.
“We knew we had to step up,” Means said. “We hung in there in the first half and tried to make a run so we’d be in it when we got Chastity and Alexis back.”
Govan’s 31-point effort was her third game with more than 30 points this season. It was her most since scoring a career-high 40 on Dec. 29 against North Texas.
“My teammates always seem to find me,” Govan said. “They just tell me to move off the ball a lot. Chastity gets double teams, but she passes it really well. She looks to the spot, and I just go wherever her eyes go.”
Miller and Latavia Dempsey paced FAU with 14 points apiece. The Owls shot 40 percent and forced 24 WKU turnovers.
The Lady Toppers conclude their road trip at 4:30 p.m. CST Saturday at Florida International.