NEW ORLEANS -- Chastity Gooch managed to stay on the floor long enough to power a big comeback by Western Kentucky.
Gooch had 26 points, 12 rebounds and three blocked shots, and the Lady Toppers used a big closing run to beat Arkansas State 61-60 in the final of the Sun Belt women's tournament on Saturday night.
No. 2 seed Western Kentucky, which lost to the top-seeded Red Wolves in both of their regular-season meetings, scored 18 of the last 22 points. It trailed from the 11:00 mark of the first half until going ahead 59-58 on Bianca McGee's 3-pointer with 2:30 left.
Arkansas State went back up on Carlisha Wyatt's layup with 1:39 left, but Kendall Noble responded with a layup at the 1:21 mark. The Red Wolves' Aundrea Gamble missed a contested shot inside in the final seconds and could not retrieve the ball in a scrum under the basket as time ran out.
The Lady Toppers then raced onto the court in a wild celebration while the stunned Red Wolves headed to the locker room.
"We're a family and we'd come this far and we couldn't let each other down now," said Gooch, who was named tournament MVP. "We stuck together and got the win."
Western Kentucky appeared to be in big trouble when Gooch picked up her fourth foul with 11:21 left. The Lady Toppers were facing a 12-point deficit, but Gooch played the rest of the way, scoring eight points, including a 3-pointer right after Arkansas State took its largest lead at 49-35.
Noble had 12 points for Western Kentucky (24-8), which won the Sun Belt tournament for the seventh time. McGee had eight of her 10 points in the last five minutes.
"We never stopped and we never gave up," coach Michelle Clark-Heard said. "That was the biggest thing that I was talking to them about. We were going to just keep fighting until the end, and that's what we did."
Gamble, the conference player of the year, had 22 points for Arkansas State (22-11), which was trying to reach the NCAA tournament for the first time.
Western Kentucky trailed by nine with 5:00 left when McGee hit a 3 on one possession and a buzzer-beating 17-footer the next time down the court to make it 58-54. Gooch followed with a layup.
Gamble, the best player on the floor for most of the game, was scoreless over the final seven minutes. She broke down trying to answer a question afterward and had to leave the interview room. Coach Brian Boyer did not fare much better when asked about his feelings of getting so close to the NCAA tournament.
He said nothing for 15 seconds, trying to compose himself, then spoke haltingly while fighting back tears.
"If you ever have to experience a locker room like that, that's when you realize how much it hurts and how hard these kids try and how much the wanted it," he said.
Arkansas State scored 10 of the first 12 points in the second half to go ahead 47-33. Gamble capped the spurt with a pinpoint pass to Wyatt for a layup.
Both teams made 25 of 61 shots. The difference was Western Kentucky's ability to hit them down the stretch. Arkansas State also struggled to handle Western Kentucky's pressure defense down the stretch, making 14 turnovers to the Lady Toppers' seven.
"We went to the full-court press, and it changed things," Clark-Heard said. "We got a couple of stops and made some baskets."