Michelle Clark-Heard talks WNIT, recruiting, Girls’ Sweet 16

I sat down with Western Kentucky women’s basketball coach Michelle Clark-Heard today, two days after her Lady Toppers fell 74-54 to Arkansas-Little Rock in the semifinals of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament.

WKU is playing the waiting game for now. It’ll find out whether or not it’ll earn a bit to the WNIT tournament Monday, when the field is released late that night after the NCAA tournament selection process.

Heard talked about the WNIT, preparation for this week and the KHSAA Girls’ Sweet 16, which begins Wednesday at E.A. Diddle Arena.

MICHELLE CLARK-HEARD

Do you think you all will be in the WNIT? “I feel like with the product that we put together this season, I think we should have a for-sure shot to get in. But I’m not on the committee. I can’t say that for sure. I don’t know how other things may fall with other people losing in their conference, but I hope it happens for us. We’re going to continue to think that way.”

What would the players take away from a WNIT berth? “The postseason is about having another season, but also preparing for the future. That’s what it would be for us, to be able to practice some more and get some more games under our belt.”

You talked a lot Sunday about UALR being ‘bigger, faster and stronger.’ Is that something you think your team needs to become? “This league is very athletic, and a lot of people don’t realize that. Very guard-oriented league, with guards that can put it on the floor and guards that can shoot it. When I got here, the first thing everybody told me was that Little Rock is the best defensive team in the league. I knew that, and I saw their rotation and how they guard. But the biggest thing for them is their guards’ ability to utilize their strength.”

What do you have in your signing class, and what skills do you still need? “We needed size. But we’re going to have to address that and keep getting more athletic, especially on the perimeter.”

Do you plan to fill your vacant scholarship this spring? “I have one left, and I’m looking to possibly get a JUCO kid. We’re in the mix for a couple kids, and I feel really strong with one of them. If so, I think that’ll add to what we’re talking about – defensively and giving the other team someone else they’d have to key on.”

What’s the plan for this week? “We played a lot of basketball with a limited number of players. We’re fortunate this is spring break for the university, so I’m letting our kids off until Friday. On Saturday, we’ll get back in here and go to work. With the way it works out, you could play Wednesday in the NIT, and I think that gives us plenty of time and preparation. Mentally, our kids need that break right now.”

(After confirming she and her staff will be at Girls’ Sweet 16): Talk about the opportunity of having the state tournament in your own building: “My whole career, I’ve always come to this tournament, no matter where I’ve been. To be right here now, and to build the brand for what we’re working toward is awesome. I’ll be able to talk to a lot of high school coaches. It’s huge for us to have all that right here.”

You’re likely to get some attention after leading such a big turnaround. Do you have a comment on that? “I’m happy here and I want to be here. I’m not even thinking about anything like that. I’ve said before this is my dream job. I think we can win big here. The sky is the limit for this program. The potential is there, because we’ve done it before.”

Postgame: Warren Central falls to Montgomery County in state tournament

Just wanted to provide a few snippets of the postgame interviews from both sides following Warren Central’s 71-63 loss to Montgomery County today in the Boys’ Sweet 16 tournament at Rupp Arena in Lexington.

WILLIAM UNSELD, Warren Central coach

Opening thoughts: “It was a tough one. It was a game of runs, and they made that last run. It took a lot of energy to get back in the game, and they made that run. We just couldn’t get over the hump in the end.”

Montgomery’s Omar Prewitt, who scored 29 points: “He made some tough shots. He made some contested shots. He’s 12 for 24. We did a good job for the most part, but he made some big ones. We lost him a couple times in transition, but a kid that good is going to make some shots.”

Missing several outside shots: “We got the shots we wanted. Walker goes 1 for 7 from 3, and he hasn’t done that all year, really. … If we replay it again, we’re taking those shots because that’s what we did all year.”

Young players: “Their seniors played really well. I had three juniors play really well. I’m looking forward to making another run at it next year with these three.”

HAPPY OSBORNE, Montgomery County coach

On Warren Central: “My hats off to Will Unseld and Warren Central. (Former WCHS coach) Tim Riley and I are really good friends, and Will’s done a great job of replacing job of replacing Tim and winning the region.  They have a heck of a team. Don’t think they didn’t run at us and play their tails off.”

Dragons’ rally in third quarter: “I think it’s a credit to our kids that we were able to withstand that third quarter. It was a barrage. It felt like a landslide, and our guys got back to playing defense. We got back to rebounding and were able to pull it out.”

CHRIS PORTER-BUNTON, WCHS junior forward

Playing better in the second half: “We knew we had to get it in the post, and our teammates did a great job of feeding us the ball. We knew they couldn’t hold us down low. We kept gutting it out.”

OMAR PREWITT, MCHS senior forward

Pulling away late: “That’s what we’ve been doing all year. I think we’ve only had one win within 10 points this year. Our pressure just really got into teams late. We keep the defensive pressure … and they just wear down.”

BYRON CARVER, WCHS junior forward

Montgomery’s late run: “We were just pushing it like always. We were trying to keep it going. We weren’t going to let it go. Coach told us to gut it out, and we did.”

Indians answering every WCHS push: “We knew when we took the lead, they were going to come back with us. Coach told us to calm down and just play defense.”

Heard named Sun Belt Conference women’s coach of the year; Govan, Gooch on 1st team, Gooch defensive POY

In one season, Michelle Clark-Heard lifted the Western Kentucky women’s basketball team out of a downward trend and into the conversation for a conference title.

Heard has been recognized for her part in the Lady Toppers’ turnaround with the Sun Belt Conference’s coach of the year award, the league announced today.

The Sun Belt’s all-conference teams and individual awards are decided by voting from the league’s coaches and media.

Heard has led WKU to a 20-9 record and the third seed in the conference tournament after the program finished 9-21 in 2011-12. The Lady Tops were projected fifth in the East Division in the preseason.

“I’ve got to give a ton of credit to those players,” Heard said. “When you have players that have bought in with such a change, it’s a testament to them. If I could give a coach of the year plaque to my whole staff, I would because this journey wouldn’t be the same without them. I know my name is on that, but it’s more of a team thing for me.”

WKU sophomores Alexis Govan and Chastity Gooch were named to the conference’s first team.

Govan is averaging 20 points per game, while Gooch averages 16 points and 11.3 rebounds and is third in the nation with 23 double-doubles.

“Everyone wants to win every game, but then I remember how awesome it is to have such a young team that has made such a huge turnaround,” Heard said. “Sometimes I think they may be too young to grasp what they’ve done, but hopefully this will open their eyes a little bit.”

The WKU duo was joined on the first team by Middle Tennessee’s Ebony Rowe and Kortni Jones, and Florida International’s Jerica Coley.

Coley, who leads the nation in scoring, was selected as player of the year. North Texas’ Loryn Goodwin was named freshman of the year.

Gooch was picked as defensive player of the year. She’s first in the conference in rebounding and blocks, and second in steals.

“Every day, I go back and I think how much those kids have improved and put so much on their shoulders,” Heard said of Gooch and Govan. “It’s really an honor for me to have the opportunity to coach them.”

WOMEN’S FIRST TEAM ALL-CONFERENCE
Jerica Coley (FIU, junior guard)
Kortni Jones (Middle Tennessee, senior guard)
Ebony Rowe (Middle Tennessee, junior forward)
Chastity Gooch (WKU, sophomore forward)
Alexis Govan (WKU, sophomore guard)

WOMEN’S SECOND TEAM ALL-CONFERENCE
Taylor Ford (UALR, junior guard)
Jane Morrill (Arkansas State, junior forward)
Chenise Miller (Florida Atlantic, junior forward)
Icelyn Elie (Middle Tennessee, senior forward)
Joanna Harden (Troy, junior guard)

WOMEN’S THIRD TEAM ALL-CONFERENCE
Marita Davydova (FIU, junior center)
Ashleigh Simmons (Louisiana-Monroe, junior forward)
Loryn Goodwin (North Texas, freshman guard)
Alexis Hyder (North Texas, freshman forward)
Mary Nixon (South Alabama, senior guard)

WOMEN’S PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Jerica Coley (FIU, junior guard)

WOMEN’S DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Chastity Gooch (WKU, sophomore forward)

WOMEN’S FRESHMAN OF THE YEAR
Loryn Goodwin (North Texas, freshman guard)

WOMEN’S COACH OF THE YEAR
Michelle Clark-Heard (WKU)

Lady Toppers preview Sun Belt Conference Tournament

We met with the WKU Lady Toppers today to preview the Sun Belt Conference Tournament, which begins Friday in Hot Springs, Ark.

The Lady Tops have a bye through the first round and will play either North Texas or Louisiana-Lafayette at 2 p.m. Saturday.

Also stayed tuned Wednesday for the Sun Belt’s all-conference teams and individual awards, which will be released in the morning.

Here are comments from coach Michelle Clark-Heard and sophomores Alexis Govan and Chastity Gooch:

MICHELLE CLARK-HEARD, coach

Preparation this week: “I want to make sure we focus on a lot of us. We need to correct some things, and I think the biggest thing is I want the kids to be excited. Excited for the opportunity, excited to have the opportunity to be in Hot Springs and watch our guys play on the first day and us not play.”

Entering on two-game losing streak: “We’ve been in a situation where we lost a couple before, and we came back and found a way to win. That’s what it’s about. What we’re trying to do is focus on the things we’re really good and make people figure out how they’re going to stop us, too.”

Balancing expectations with enjoying turnaround: “It’s hard, especially with a young group. I try to always put them in a position to look back and see where we’ve been. The way I try to break things up is one game at a time. How many times have we won three games in a row? If you look at our schedule, it’s been four times. I want them to understand this is very much so doable.”

Preparing for two teams: “When it comes tournament time, you’ve got to be ready to play. Survive and advance, that’s what it’s all about. Any time you get in the conference tournament, you just have to match up and figure it out. It’s going to come down to defense, rebounding and taking care of the basketball.”

Tournament draw: “I think we definitely got a great draw. I look at the work we did in the beginning to put ourselves in that position. Every team gets better and better, so I believe we’re happy with the draw, but I also believe all season, we were top two, top three in the conference. The luck of the draw was good for us, but this young team also put itself in a position to get to this point.”

WKU administrators expecting fast success: “I know they want to win. I think anytime someone steps into a head coaching job, there’s pressure. I didn’t look at it that way. I just looked at it as a challenge. I knew I had to get a great staff so that we could put some things in place, but I never imagined that I’d be sitting here today with us 20-9 and third seed in the conference.”

On Lafayette: “Lafayette has really guards that are good and have a couple kids that can shoot it. We were able to jump on them early and we tried to take the shooters out of the picture. We don’t want people to hurt us behind the arc. They love to push the ball in transition, so we’ll have to be on our ‘A’ game.”

On North Texas: “North Texas, they’ll press and use a zone. We’re going to have to make shots. Bianca McGee stepped up huge at North Texas and hit a bunch of 3s, and that was able to open up Chastity and Alexis. Everybody played a significant role in both of those games.”

ALEXIS GOVAN, sophomore guard

On getting the third seed: “We were pretty excited. Our side is one that we’re a little more confident about. We’re just going to prepare like we always do and go in there one game at a time.”

On tournament draw: “It’s pretty nice, I’m not going to lie. I’m glad we don’t have to start out battling with those teams.”

Sweeping North Texas: “I think that last trip to North Texas was one of the best games we played. We got a little confidence against them. We passed the ball really well, and that was a good team game. Our confidence is pretty high with them, but we know it’s going to be a battle if it’s them.”

On her and Gooch being sophomores: “We don’t think about it. Right now, we’re just playing. But some days we’ve got to take a step back and we’re like, ‘We’re only sophomores.’ But we’re living in the moment right now. We’re playing like this is our senior year and we only have right now.”

On job Heard has done: “She told us from the start that people didn’t think they were going to see anything until next year. That’s not what she wanted. She wanted to show she could come in and change the program with what she already had. She’s a phenomenal coach.”

CHASTITY GOOCH, sophomore forward

Getting third seed after being picked fifth in East Division in preseason: “I feel like we shut up a lot of people. We made a whole turnaround.”

Preparation right now: “We just have kind of light practices. Coach was talking about practice not being as hard, not going up and down the court as much. We’re trying to rest and stayed focused.”

Lady Toppers secure No. 3 seed in Sun Belt Conference Tournament

wbbbracketThe Western Kentucky women’s basketball team has secured the No. 3 seed in next week’s Sun Belt Conference Tournament in Hot Springs, Ark.

The Lady Toppers (20-9, 13-7 SBC) needed some help to finish third after Saturday’s 71-54 loss to Middle Tennessee at E.A. Diddle Arena.

They got that help from Arkansas-Little Rock, which beat Arkansas State 58-51 on Saturday and sent the Red Wolves to a fourth-place finish.

WKU will play the winner of No. 6 North Texas and No. 11 Louisiana-Lafayette at 2 p.m. March 9 in the tournament quarterfinals after a first-round bye.

The order for seeding is as follows: Middle Tennessee, UALR, WKU, Arkansas State, Florida International, North Texas, South Alabama, Florida Atlantic, Louisiana-Monroe, Troy and Louisiana-Lafayette.

WKU’s draw means it’ll be on the opposite side of the bracket from MTSU, Arkansas State and FIU – teams it went a combined 1-5 against in the regular season.

The Lady Tops’ combined record against their half of the bracket is 8-2, while their record against the opposite side is 5-5.

UALR’s victory over Arkansas State means the Trojans will receive an automatic bid to the Women’s National Invitation Tournament if MTSU wins the conference title. The Lady Raiders will get the automatic WNIT bid if anyone else wins the league championship.

Postgame: MTSU reacts to 71-54 win at Western Kentucky

Here are postgame comments from Middle Tennessee coach Rick Insell, junior forward Ebony Rowe and senior forward Icelyn Elie after beating WKU 71-54 at E.A. Diddle Arena.

RICK INSELL, MTSU coach

Grabbing offensive rebounds: “That’s what championship teams are supposed to do – put yourself in position to get one of those rebounds and finish it. Ebony and KeKe were able to do that. … KeKe is probably one of the best post players in the country that people don’t know about. When she gets the basketball, she can finish.”

Importance of beating WKU: “It’s always important to beat Western Kentucky. They’ve got great fans. We’ve got better fans. This is what you do to build the women’s game. They’re doing what they need to do here to build the women’s game, and we’re doing what we need to do at Middle Tennessee. More programs need to do that. Put these two types of programs together, it means something. I don’t know that they were playing for anything more than pride, and the same goes for us.”

What’s different with WKU this year from last year? “I’m not going to get into that. I don’t want to be negative. Teams sometimes hit these valleys and can’t get out of them. Maybe that’s what happened last year. Same group of players out there, and I’m sure Michelle infused some new strategies and enthusiasm.”

Jones stepping up late: “Kortni is just a fantastic young lady. She’s got her own way of doing things. Sometimes when she does it her way, it works out, and that’s bad usually. Sometimes when she does it our way – she’s unstoppable when she wants to be unstoppable.”

EBONY ROWE, junior forward

Beating WKU again: “It always means a lot. My parents are from here, my grandparents are here. A lot of my family was here supporting me. A couple of them have red on, so I’m a little upset with them, but it’s OK. It’s just a pride thing. It’s really strong teams, so we knew this one was going to be whoever wanted it most.”

ICELYN ELIE, senior forward

Offensive boards: “That was key going into this game. That was what was going to keep us in the game. They’ve got Gooch down there battling for everybody rebound, but boxing out and going to get the boards was our main thing today.”

Guarding Govan: “Govan is an awesome player, but from the beginning, it was staying focused and looking into my scout to know what she was going to do. I did an OK job on her until the second half.”

Postgame: Lady Tops react to 71-54 loss to MTSU in regular season finale

Here are postgame comments from WKU coach Michelle Clark-Heard and sophomores Alexis Govan and Chastity Gooch after the Lady Tops’ 71-54 loss to Middle Tennessee in the regular season finale at E.A. Diddle Arena.

MICHELLE CLARK-HEARD, coach

Game plan against MTSU: “They hit 17 3s in the last game against Troy, so our main focus was to try to take the 3 away and make sure (Jones) didn’t get 30 on us again. I was really proud of our group in the first half. We had missed some offensive rebounds, but we were right in the ballgame. The things we wanted to do in the first half, we did.”

Kortni Jones’ play late: “She decided, ‘I’m not going to lose here at Western.’ This is a learning and growing opportunity. We put it all on the line, and the kids played hard.”

Govan’s play: “She was frustrated a little bit in the first half. But her assignment at first was to chase Kortni Jones. You give and take, and we’ll have to tweak some things. If we meet them again, we’ll be ready.”

Gooch getting in foul trouble: “It really hurt us, and I think it hurt the morale of the team a little bit. Her and Alexis, they’ve been the anchors for this team. I’ve still got a young group. She fouls Rowe under the basket, and she wasn’t even going to make that shot. Teaching moments.”

Do you think fans should walk away from this season pleased? “If people can’t see where we’re trying to take this program and the excitement level, I don’t know what else to do. The girls don’t know what else to do, because they laid it all on the line every day. We were in every game here at home.”

Closing up first regular season: “It’s emotional for me, to walk off that floor right now and know we didn’t do what we were supposed to do – what we wanted to do, which was take care of business in our last home game. It’s tough, but we’ll refocus, and we’ll be ready when it’s time for us to go to Hot Springs.”

Making adjustments for tourney: “We’ve got to take care of the basketball and work on some defensive things. I think the biggest thing is that our kids are hungry. I think their passion is ready to take three games and one game at a time to win a championship.”

People expecting more: “I’m super excited for this program and those young ladies, because with all that hard work they put in the beginning, now they’re in a position where people want more. People want to see them continue to grow.”

ALEXIS GOVAN, sophomore guard

Giving up offensive rebounds: “We talk about it every day in practice. We say we’ve got to box out on the defensive boards and we’ve got to get 50-50 balls. Today, we didn’t do that, and that’s a gamechanger.”

Having an off night offensively: “Honestly, in the first half, what they were doing worked. They let me get a little frustrated, but in the second half, I knew I couldn’t let Chastity and my teammates do it themselves. I missed a lot of shots, but I just tried to bring energy and play defense.”

Are you capable of beating MTSU in a third game? “We’re definitely capable. We’re a young team, and we’re in the best shape we’ve been in a long time. It’s not the physical body being tired, but mentally we have to push through. Coach is going to get us prepared, and mentally, we’ll be able to hold on that last five minutes.”

What do you hope fans take away from this season? “I hope they see that our motto ‘On the Rise’ is true. We’re working every day to get back to where this program was, and I hope they saw this season how hard we fight and how much energy we have.”

CHASTITY GOOCH, sophomore forward

Foul trouble: “It was very frustrating. My fourth foul was just kind out of frustration. It was a stupid foul.”

MTSU’s Ebony Rowe: “I worked hard posting up, and I was trying to not let Ebony get the ball. She can do a lot of moves, so it’s hard to determine what she’s about to do. Getting between her and the basket is about all you can do.”

Breaking double-double record: “It’s exciting. Coach Mansfield kept pushing me. I just kept playing, and it came to me.”

MTSU coach Rick Insell talks regular season finale at WKU

I had the chance to talk briefly today with Middle Tennessee women’s basketball coach Rick Insell, who will bring his Sun Belt Conference regular season champion Lady Raiders to E.A. Diddle Arena at 11 a.m. Saturday to face WKU.

Here’s what Insell had to say about the regular season finale:

RICK INSELL, MTSU coach

How things have gone since beating WKU in Murfreesboro: “This year has been a grind, and it’s been a grind for everybody. That 20-game conference schedule is tough. You’ve seen some unbelievable things happen in the conference this year. Troy coming in here and beating us, and Lafayette beating Little Rock. I mean, good gracious. Not that they couldn’t, but just some strange things, and I think a lot of it is because of that 20-game schedule, to be honest with you.”

Where are you guys at overall right now? “We’ve played pretty good, but I don’t think we’ve peaked out. Last night, we had a good game at Troy. But going 40 minutes, we probably played 25 minutes of good basketball. The other 15 minutes were just so-so, and I’ve seen a lot of that this year. We watched back the film on the Western game here, and I don’t think us or Western played very good.”

What did you learn from the first game about WKU? “You’ve got to stop Govan and Gooch. If you don’t contain those two, you’re not going to win. They’ve got some good kids around them that play roles, much like we do. We’ve got Ice and Ebony Rowe and Kortni Jones, and then four or five other kids that just play roles around them. That’s what Michelle’s doing, too. We’ve both had success with it. If our superstars show up and the role players do what they’re supposed to do, it’s going to be a heck of a game for both of us.”