The Conference USA champion’s 12-game win streak was snapped in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Despite a game-leading 19 points from redshirt senior Kendall Noble, Western Kentucky fell 70-63 to No. 11 Ohio State in Memorial Coliseum on Friday.
“This is a tough one,” head coach Michelle Clark-Heard said. “The game plan was perfect. (The team) executed what we asked them to do. The ball didn’t go in the hole for us, and you have those nights. … I’m just really proud of our grit and our grind.”
The Hilltoppers, who average 44 percent, shot 28.9 percent from the field — a season low.
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Noble picked up the game’s only double-double with a team-high 12 rebounds. In her return to Lexington, Kentucky transfer Kyvin Goodin-Rogers kick-started Western Kentucky’s scoring, making two three-point shots in the first three minutes. Goodin-Rogers was third in team scoring with 10 points and grabbed nine boards.
“Coming back to Memorial, it was just like I never left,” Goodin-Rogers said. “I wasn’t focused on that. I was focused on getting my team where we wanted to be.”
Turnovers plagued the Hilltoppers in the first half. As Clark-Heard pointed out, Western Kentucky had 13 in its entire conference tournament yet had 10 in the first half against Ohio State.
Despite their opponent’s ball control issues, the Buckeyes and their No. 4-in-the-nation scoring offense — just one cumulative point behind powerhouse UConn, who shares an average of 86.6 points per game — couldn’t generate more than a four-point lead for most of the first half.
“Our plan was to drive and kick, get as many threes as we could, open it up and try to get pull-up jumpers after that. Try to keep them off the boards,” Clark-Heard said. “(We wanted to) come out and make sure we stay in the ball game for the first five minutes because we know how fast they can put points on the board.”
Ohio State’s Kelsey Mitchell, who is the top three-point shooter and top-five in numerous offensive categories, was limited in the first quarter, contributing only one point and one assist. When it mattered, a three-point shot from Mitchell followed by a layup from Kentucky transfer Linnae Harper extended the Buckeyes’ lead to 37-30 at the half, the largest lead of the game to that point.
Mitchell found her rhythm in the fourth quarter, ending the game with a shared team-high 15 points. Friday marked her 100th career game of double-digit scoring.
“We held Kelsey to 15, and everyone knows that Kelsey can go off at any time when she wants to,” Clark-Heard cited as a positive from the game.
Where Mitchell’s day was slow to start, her teammate Asia Doss was steady throughout the game, contributing a season-high 15 points of her own and matching her season high with six assists.
As Ohio State advances to play Kentucky, the reality of a closed season hit Clark-Heard as she spoke about her team postgame. Her lip quivered and tears crawled down her face as she talked about the special relationship between her and Noble.
“The way they played today and never gave up is what this team is, and what I will always remember about this team,” Clark-Heard said. “I’m just a proud coach and I’m really sad we couldn’t find a way to pull it out.”