By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
Buckle your seatbelts. It’s time for West Virginia-Baylor III, and this time the Big 12 Women’s Basketball Tournament championship is the prize.
The two top seeds advanced to the finals on Saturday in Oklahoma City, Baylor beating Oklahoma State, 65-61, in the first semifinal and then the Mountaineers spent another afternoon on the tight rope before beating Texas, 67-60.
And so it is that these two teams, which battled to the final second a week ago before WVU escaped with a 71-69 upset on the Bears’ court on Senior Night, will play again for the championship.
“It’s going to be a dog fight. Everyone wants it bad,” West Virginia senior guard Christal Caldwell said following the victory. “This is our first time to play for a conference title, and Baylor wants us again. I know Odyssey (Sims) is going to come out strong after letting one go on Senior Night.”
Sims, the nation’s leading scorer, had a turnover, her 10th of what otherwise was an incredible game, to keep Baylor from getting a chance at a tying or winning shot.
In the two games against WVU, Sims scored 48 and 39 points, but since that last game with the Mountaineers she has gone into a mysterious shooting slump, scoring just 11, 15 and 17 points and hitting 1-of-14 3-point shots.
Asked after beating Texas how he planned to try and cover Sims, WVU coach Mike Carey smiled and said, “We haven’t covered her yet. I guess I don’t have a plan. She had 48 and 39 against us. Our goal is to keep it close until the final four minutes.”
That pretty much sums up the entire season, the Mountaineers living on the edge of a cliff, forced to come from behind six times to win games and doing things over and over to keep from turning games into easy victories.
This game with Texas, a team they split with during the regular season, was no different as they wasted a 10-point lead that they established early in the second half and allowed the Longhorns to draw within one, in part by failing to make a basket for more than six minutes down the stretch.
But always, it seems, someone produces magical moments.
First it was Linda Stepney, the point guard who isn’t often counted on to score. With about 11 minutes left the lead had been slashed to a point when Averee Fields, who missed a shot but somehow got her own rebound, found Stepney who drove to the basket and scored while being fouled and converted it to a 3-point play.
After Bria Holmes, who bounced back from a difficult game against TCU to lead WVU with 23 points, hit a free throw, Stepney stepped into the post to steal a pass to not only get WVU another possession but give them a boost of energy.
The Mountaineers stretched the lead out to 10 again, only to have the Longhorns come battling back, both teams battling hard on the boards and diving onto the floor.
“It doesn’t surprise me it wasn’t a pretty game,” Carey said. “Both teams play good defense, go inside and play physical.”
The Mountaineers frustrated Texas’ two big inside players, holding Imani McGee-Stafford to just two baskets and five points and Nneka Enemkpali to two baskets and six points, while Texas did a solid job again on Asya Bussie, the Mountaineer star getting two baskets, nine points and only three rebounds.
But with WVU it doesn’t really matter, for there is always someone else ready to step forward.
“Well, it’s just always a team effort with us,” Caldwell said. “If someone is down we just always try to pick them up or someone else can step up and make a big play for this team. That’s why we all have West Virginia on our jerseys, because we’re just a team and we always try to step up and help each other.”
That accounts for so much success in so many close games, just as it was with this game.
In the final minute Celina Rodrigo made an impossible, blind shot with Jess Harlee all over her to cut it to 62-60 and Texas got the ball back with a chance to tie, but WVU never let them get off a good shot, Rodrigo eventually launching an air ball 3 at the shot clock buzzer.
From there, Caldwell hit four straight free throws and Holmes one to account for the final margin of victory.
Caldwell finished as the second leading scorer to Holmes with 15 points, hitting 8-of-8 free throws, and Taylor Palmer did her thing coming off the bench to score 10 points.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.