By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
They met in middle school in Norfolk, Va., two young girls with a love for basketball and desire for it to lead them somewhere.
Linda Stepney was a point guard, Crystal Leary an inside force right from the beginning.
They bonded right from the day they met, teammates, schoolmates and friends, and the friendship led them to West Virginia University, where they have become important members of coach Mike Carey’s Mountaineers, who bring their 5-1 record onto the Coliseum floor at 7 p.m. today against a 3-3 team from Coppin State.
“We knew we had a lot of chemistry together. We thought it would be a good idea to go to the same school. She brought it to my attention. I didn’t know West Virginia was recruiting both of us. We took our visit together and liked it,” Leary, WVU’s second leading rebounder, said.
Carey approached the recruitment of the two cautiously.
“It was hard,” he said, not necessarily selling them on school, but more on dealing with the situation of recruiting teammates.
“When you recruit teammates, one may like you, one may not, so you try to make it not as a package. We tried to recruit them as individuals, but they did want to play at the same place. I always tell them, ‘We want you. I’m not recruiting you to get so-and-so. If that happens, it’s great, but we want you.’”
The two liked what West Virginia showed them and knew that Carey was building a solid basketball program at the school, one that figured to be blossoming as they blossomed.
Stepney always has been one of Leary’s biggest fans.
“Since we were little she has been very athletic and a hustle player,” she said. “Her rebounding has always been good, but this year she is really bringing it to the table.”
Indeed, she brought down 12 rebounds against Virginia two games ago and nine against Youngstown State in the last game, a game in which Carey was unhappy with his team’s overall rebounding effort.
“Crystal wants to bring whatever the team needs to the table, whether it’s rebounding or defense or hustle or scoring,” Stepney said. “Whatever it is, she’ll bring it. At this point in time, it’s rebounding.”
And, if Stepney is one of her biggest fans, Carey may be the biggest.
“She plays so hard,” Carey said. “Anybody who plays hard can play for me. She’s my type of player. She doesn’t back down from anybody. You can win a lot of games with players like that.”
Carey always has, playing hard and hustling being a trademark of his teams both on the men’s and women’s side.
“I’m not a strong offensive player but when I’m wide open, she’ll pass me the ball, and if I pass it away she’ll get mad at me and say, ‘Crystal, shoot the ball.’ I think about it and she has a good point,” Leary said.
Thus part of what Leary likes about Stepney.
“On and off the court she’s an honest person. I can trust her. I know she is going to work hard. She’ll push me and I push her. On and off the court I really love her,” she said.
That kind of trust the entire team needs from Stepney, for, as the point guard, she controls the flow of the game and has done so for much of three years, starting 65 consecutive games.
Her challenge in this game will be to involve Asya Bussie more than they were able to do against Youngstown. Bussie played only 14 minutes and got only four shots despite being WVU’s leading scorer for the season.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.