They call it the Sweet 16 but for West Virginia it remains the Sour 16.
The second-seeded Mountain-eers, looking to advance to the Sweet 16 for the first time in eight journeys into the NCAA Tournament under coach Mike Carey, fell short once again as seventh-seeded LSU, taking advantage of playing on its home floor at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center before a rabid group of faithful fans and some shoddy WVU play down the stretch, won, 76-67.
Only in 1992 has WVU reached the Sweet 16 and that was before the tournament expanded from 32 to 64 teams, so the Mountaineers still have never gotten beyond the first round.
And so ended the careers of five Mountaineer seniors — center Asya Bussie, forwards Christal Caldwell and Jess Harlee and guards Taylor Palmer and Brooke Hampton — who have seen good times and bad but seemed poised to make a run at the Final Four this season until it all came unraveled.
They had gone through growing pains and the pains of three knee surgeries, watched WVU move from the Big East to the Big 12, leaving the shadow of Connecticut only to fall under the shadow of Baylor, go on to become Big 12 regular season co-champions with the Bears, set a school record with 30 victories this season as three of them — Bussie, Caldwell and Palmer — became 1,000-point scorers.
But in the end, there was nothing but the heartbreak of defeat and it came the way WVU usually wins its games, in the final four minutes.
The Mountaineers (30-5), led by Bussie, charged to a nine-point second-half lead but fell apart in those final four minutes, being outscored by LSU, 20-4.
Bussie led WVU with 21 points and eight rebounds in her final game but could not offset Danielle Ballard, who scored 22, grabbed 15 rebounds and had six assists for the Bayou Tigers.
LSU pounded the Mountaineers on the boards, grabbing 55 rebounds to 40 for WVU.
It was all uphill for the Mountaineers in a first half. They would wind up trailing, 37-35, which wasn’t bad considering the way they started.
The Mountaineers came out looking almost scared, as if trying to show why they historically have had so much trouble advancing in the NCAA Tournament.
Shanece McKinney completely dominated inside, blocking almost everything WVU threw at the basket in the first four minutes, grabbing rebounds and scoring as LSU got off to an 8-3 lead and then stretched it to 17-9, the eight point advantage being as large as it would get.
The Mountaineers were having a terrible time putting the ball in the hoop, Bria Holmes missing her first three 3s to run her string of consecutive missed treys to 14 and Christal Caldwell also was clanking everything but Carey wasn’t asking anyone to back off.
“Shooters like Bria and Christal, I don’t say a word,” Carey had said when they had trouble on Sunday. “I heard Bria saying to a couple of teammates, ‘I’m not taking a three the next game, and I said, ‘Well, you will or you’ll come out of the game.’
“I’m more, if that’s your shot, shoot it. If you miss it, you miss it. I don’t get caught up in that stuff.”
Sure enough, even though the fouls were building up against the Mountaineers and Asya Bussie spent most of the half sitting with 2, the shots started falling.
Jess Harlee, as she always does, came in and gave the Mountaineers a boost of energy and hit a couple of baskets. The lead shrank and when Holmes and Caldwell each hit their first 3s back-to-back, WVU had its first lead at 25-23.
But they just weren’t playing smart basketball as evidenced by Carey gambling and putting his point guard Linda Stepney back in the game with two fouls only to have her pick up her third in a rush. By halftime LSU had regained the lead by two points.
Holmes finished the half with 10 points and Caldwell nine while Danielle Ballard, who scored 25 points against WVU last year, was hurting the Mountaineers badly with her penetration, scoring 10.
The second half started the same way the game did with LSU scoring seven quick points to take a nine point lead, 42-33, but WVU decided if they were going to win the game they had to get Bussie involved.
And Bussie responded, quickly scoring a basket and then getting a third foul on All-SEC player Plaisance and then a third on McKinney. Bussie scored seven straight points to get the lead down to four points.
Senior Taylor Palmer then took over with a free throw and a huge 3 that tied the game at 48 but Carey knew what his game plan had to be now. After Ballard scored to give LSU a brief lead, WVU went inside twice in a row and drew Plaisance’s fourth foul and then McKinney’s fourth foul, all four free throws being made.
WVU was in front 52-50 and both of LSU’s bigs were on the bench.
LSU had no answer inside for Bussie with their big players out and she went to the free throw line over and over, hitting 7 of 8 free throws to give her 16 points, 14 of them in the second half.
When the two LSU inside players came back in the Mountaineers stopped looking toward Bussie, even though they should have looked harder in an effort to foul them out, and the Bayou Tigers battled back so they went into the last 2:40 of the game with WVU clinging to a 65-64 lead, the Mountaineers’ last lead of the season.
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They call it the Sweet 16 but for West Virginia it remains the Sour 16.
- Bob Herzel
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