- Associated Press - Saturday, March 11, 2017

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) - Kendall Noble and Western Kentucky weren’t encumbered by big-game jitters.

Tashia Brown scored 17 points and Noble added 15 to lead top-seeded Western Kentucky to a 67-56 victory over Southern Miss in Sunday’s Conference USA women’s tournament championship game.

The Lady Toppers (27-6) won their second C-USA tournament title in three years and ride a 12-game win streak into the NCAA Tournament after claiming the automatic bid. They got off to a fast start in this one, making 17 of 32 first-half shots and building a 41-24 halftime lead.

“When you get to championship games, normally both teams have got jitters coming out and playing,” Western Kentucky coach Michelle Clark-Heard said. “I just talked to the team in the locker room about just having fun and just competing. We were relaxed. I could see that with this group, because I think we have some veterans.”

Southern Miss (23-10) couldn’t mount a second straight fourth-quarter comeback despite a 25-point game from Brittanny Dinkins. The Lady Eagles had wiped out a 43-37 deficit in the final quarter against Middle Tennessee in the semifinals, when Dinkins scored seven points in the final two minutes.

Southern Miss trailed by 12 points going into the fourth this time and scored the first two baskets, but couldn’t mount a real threat.

Noble was the tournament MVP.

“To go out on top, it means the world to me,” she said.

Dinkins made 9 of 14 shots, including five 3-pointers, but the Lady Eagles never led.

They did, however, pull closer in the second half.

Western Kentucky shot the cover off of it,” Lady Eagles coach Joye Lee-McNelis said. “I mean, they shot the cover off of it. We tried different ways to defend them and nothing mattered. I think that’s the true sign of a veteran team.

“They’ve been in this environment and they came in calm, cool and collected. And they’re very good. I think it kind of shell-shocked us as well as they shot the basketball.”

BIG PICTURE

Western Kentucky built a 20-point lead in the second quarter. Made just 8 of 28 shots (28.6 percent) in the second half.

Southern Miss also lost to Western Kentucky 60-57 in the 2015 league title game. Shot 21 of 50 from the floor (42 percent). Keri Jewett-Giles had five points and six assists. Megan Brown scored 8.

QUOTABLE

“This was all I wanted was for people to have a chance to see how good this team is,” Clark-Heard said. “They put a lot of work in. I’ve been on them. I’ve been pushing them, and I just can’t wait to see our name pop up and have that chance again.”

UP NEXT

Western Kentucky awaits its NCAA Tournament seeding and destination.

Southern Miss has bid to host two WNIT games and is hoping for the chance.

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