The Western Kentucky women’s basketball team survived a tough and exhausting win Thursday night. Now the Lady Toppers get a chance to play for a title.
WKU (3-0) slowly crawled away from visiting Albany 63-54 at E.A. Diddle Arena to advance to the championship game of the preseason Women’s National Invitational Tournament against Mississippi State at 2 p.m. Sunday.
WKU coach Michelle Clark-Heard’s team outscored the Great Danes 13-3 over the final 4:56 to survive the semifinal match and advance.
“Definitely was a tough one,” Heard said. “I’m just so proud to sit here as a coach. Those girls just kept fighting and kept digging. One person would miss a shot, somebody else would come down and get a rebound and make a shot – this team, the chemistry is really, really good on this team.
“They really are truly sisters that are working to be the best that they can be.”
WKU shot 2 of 10 from 3-point range and turned the ball over 23 times, but forced Albany into 33 turnovers, held the Danes to 0-for-4 shooting from long distance and overcame forward Shereesha Richards’ 21 points and eight rebounds.
Kendall Noble scored 14 for WKU, pulled down 10 rebounds, collected six steals and dealt out four assists. Seniors Chastity Gooch and Alexis Govan combined for 27 points on 10 of 25 shooting and WKU only made 24 field goals.
It was still enough to get the job done.
“We told them it was going to be a grind-out game,” Heard said. “They’re a very talented team. We were going to have to take the game in segments.”
The Lady Toppers started out strong and built leads of 10-4 on a Gooch bucket and 14-6 on a Tashia Brown layup. But the Great Danes used their zone to slow WKU down and eventually tied the score at 16-16 on Tiana-Jo Carter’s strong move from the left block.
Carter gave Albany its first lead at 18-16 at the 9:20 mark of the first half, but Govan came back and hit a jumper on the left side of the floor and Noble poured in three straight to give WKU a 21-18 lead.
Noble’s third steal of the half led to a layup and a 27-21 Lady Toppers’ edge, but Albany didn't go away. Richards’ bucket made it a 32-29 game and Imani Tate’s pull-up from the right side put Albany down 32-31 at the break.
“We talked about just getting that fire, coming out and working hard, hitting the boards and boxing out,” said Brown about the conversation at halftime. “Not everybody was going to get the rebound, but if we boxed out, one of our other teammates can get it. We just had to come back out with fire.
“We were beating ourselves.”
The Danes started the second half by coming back from a 38-33 deficit to take a 39-38 lead on Richards’ steal and layup with 14:40 showing on the clock. The two sides traded leads three times and were tied once after that, with WKU leading by no more than four and Albany leading by no more than three.
That finally changed on Noble’s pull-up with 3:59 to go that made it 56-51. That margin proved to be just enough breathing room for the Lady Toppers to hang on.
“Shots started falling,” said Noble. “We were getting stops a lot of the time, I think, but shots weren’t falling. Shots started falling and we pulled away.”
Tate finished with 14 and Carter added 10 for Albany (2-1).