NEW ORLEANS, La. (A-State) – The top-seeded Arkansas State women's basketball team suffered a 61-60 loss to No. 2 Western Kentucky in the Sun Belt Conference Championship game Saturday at Lakefront Arena.
Western Kentucky closed the game on 12-2 run and snatched the Sun Belt Conference title from the Red Wolves' grasp. Arkansas State (22-11) led by as many as 11 with 6:53 to go, but the Lady Toppers caught fire at the right time and seized the momentum in the game's final minutes.
A-State had an opportunity to win the game in the final seconds when Aundrea Gamble drove to the basket but did not get a clean look at the goal. Her shot hit the rim and ricochet away before the Red Wolves were able to get a clean rebound and get off another shot before time expired.
"There are a lot of things you want to hear, but there's not a lot to say," A-State head coach Brian Boyer said. "I think everyone is speechless right now. It's just a devastated locker room. I'm still very proud of this team and what they've done. I'm proud of getting to this tournament. When I first got in to coaching, a coach I was mentored by a man that used to say that runs are so important in the game of basketball. Sometimes you make them too early and your opponent has time to respond and sometimes too late and sometimes it's perfect timing and Western Kentucky's was just perfect timing and we didn't get them stopped. Hence, they're cutting the nets down and we're not."
Gamble scored 22 points and grabbed a career-high 13 rebounds, while Jane Morrill added 14 points and four rebounds and both were named to the All-Tournament team.
A-State appeared to be in control of the game after starting the second half with a flurry of points. Gamble scored the Red Wolves first seven points and Hanna Qedan knocked down a 3-pointer to go up 41-31 with 15:55 to go.
The advantage grew to 49-31 the largest of the game for either team, with 10:28 to go but Western Kentucky slowly began to inch its way back into the game when Jalen O'Bannon and Qedan both picked up their fourth fouls.
WKU went to work and got key buckets from Bianca McGee who gave WKU its first lead of the half with a trey to go up 59-58, but Carlisha Wyatt gave A-State the lead the back with a layup with 1:39 to go, but Kendall Noble hit a layup with 1:21 left to go up 61-60 and then held on as the Red Wolves took two shots in the game's final minute but could not connect on any of the attempts.
"You're just numb to have a game finish like that," Boyer said. "We've certainly been on the positive end of a lot of these games this year and two of them were against Western Kentucky. For the third time this year, it came down to the last possession and tonight it was theirs."
Morrill gave A-State a jolt of momentum to start the game with a pair of mid-range jumpers, but WKU responded with a 9-0 run to put the Red Wolves on their heels. Qedan quelled the run with a 3-pointer but the Lady Toppers responded with a trey of its own to go up 12-7.
After trading baskets, Jasmine Hunt scored on a layup that sparked a 12-0 run for A-State to go up 22-14 with 9:18 remaining in the half. Hunt, Gamble, Wyatt and Morrill all scored during the run, while the Lady Toppers went 0-for-4 from the field.
Arkansas State had success moving the ball in its offensive and finding the open player. The Red Wolves had nine assists on their first 12 baskets and finished the first half with 12 assists.
The Red Wolves' lead grew to 26-17 after a jumper from Qedan with 6:17 remaining, but the Lady Toppers closed with a strong effort including knocking down a jumper as time expired to the halftime score at 33-29 in favor of A-State.
Gamble or Morrill were the spark plugs for Arkansas State in the first half. Each had 10 points, while Gamble added five rebounds and two assists. Qedan also had a strong first half with seven points, six rebounds and three assists.
The Red Wolves continue their in the Women's National Invitational Tournament next week. The field of team's well be announced a Monday, March 17 approximately one hour of the NCAA selection show. The bracket and home sites will be announced later that evening.