By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
A week ago, West Virginia University women’s basketball coach Mike Carey, in a classic moment of understatement, tried to downplay the importance of what figures to be a sold-out meeting with Baylor at 2:30 p.m. today in the Ferrell Center in Waco, Texas.
He even went so far as to say he would tell his ladies, who ride an eight-game winning streak into the game that could give him and West Virginia their first Big 12 title and give them a position of national prominence, that they had “nothing to lose.”
Then, a couple of days before tipoff of the game that will be televised nationally on Fox Sports 1, he was hit over the head by the hammer of reality.
“Normally, I’d say it’s just another game, but because our players are excited, because they are looking forward to this game, I’m not going to be naïve and tell them that it’s just another game. They know better,” he said.
“We’re going into this game to win this game. We’re not going into it to make a good showing. We’re going in to try and win the basketball game.”
They understand the stakes.
His team is ranked 10th and 11th in the two major polls, Baylor fifth and sixth. His team is 25-3, Baylor 25-3. WVU is 14-2 in the Big 12, Baylor 15-1.
They understand, too, that in an earlier meeting Baylor rode a record 48 points from star guard Odyssey Sims and beat WVU handily, 78-62, at the Coliseum.
If the Mountaineers can win this game, they most likely will earn at least a share with Baylor of that conference title they have never won, get the No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the conference tournament and, perhaps, earn a No. 1 or No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
What does the game mean to his players?
“It means everything, especially with five seniors. We want to go out and leave a legacy of something that hasn’t been done here,” said Christal Caldwell, one of those five seniors.
“We just want to remain confident and know we can go in there and do anything we want,” Caldwell continued. “We have nothing to lose and everything to gain. This is one of the big games of our careers, and we want to go in and do what we can do.”
It’s true, the world doesn’t come to an end with a defeat, and Carey has to walk a fine line of building the game up to the point where his team approaches it as if it is their last game, yet knowing that most of their real goals lie on the other side of the game … the ultimate being winning the NCAA championship.
“It’s not just another game because of seeding. Every game we have left is about seeding. It just so happens we are in position to contend for the Big 12 championship … and that’s great,” Carey said. “You don’t know how many times you are going to be in this position, so when you are in this position you want to go for it.
“We will pull out all the stops. I’ve said all along, if we can be in the game going into the last four minutes it will be really interesting because our girls play pretty well the last four minutes. That’s where we want to get to. No matter what happens before that, that’s the position we want to be in.”
That is the day’s first goal. Stay in the game, for WVU has come from behind to win in the final eight minutes of a game on five different occasions. Baylor’s style is to bury you early, as they did with WVU the first time around, then ride that to victory.
“I’ve been watching a lot of film on them. They jump on you really early, get up 15 or 20 and then sort of coast,” Carey said.
He has tried to impress this on his team.
“We watched the first 10 minutes of their game to show them how they get out and play with emotion,” he noted. “At their place, that’s exactly what they are going to try to do. The crowd will be involved. The first eight minutes will be very important we’re still in the game at that point.
“We have to come out and be aggressive, which is something we don’t often offensively. We have to come out and attack early. They are going to attack us; we have to attack them. We have to get up and down the floor. We have to match their intensity.”
Staying close is goal No. 1; to do that, they must accomplish Goal No. 2, which is to have some sort of control over Sims, who’s averaging 29.9 points a game … or more than WVU’s top two scorers combined.
In Baylor’s victory at the Coliseum she hit 14 of 29 field goal attempts, 6 of 10 from 3-point range, 14 of 17 free throws, grabbed 10 rebounds … oh, and if you think she’s a ball hog she also had seven assists.
Forty-eight points and seven assists! If each assist led to a two, she had a hand in 62 Baylor points … matching WVU’s total for the game.
“I would love to have another shot at defending her,” Caldwell said, indicating she learned a lot from the experience. “You have to limit her touches. She’s a great player, she’s going to get her points. She’s going to try score because that’s what she has to do for her team but we can’t let her get 50 points again.”
“If you stop her, you kind of stop Baylor. She has almost all their points every game. You stop Odyssey Sims, you stop Baylor,” senior center Asya Bussie added.
Carey said he has some different things to try, but that he wasn’t going to discuss them before the game.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.