By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
This column was supposed to come the day after West Virginia University had beaten Baylor in the final of the Big 12 Women’s Basketball Championships, the day after the Mountaineers had performed one more last-minute miracle and enjoyed a second moment of cutting down the nets with a championship trophy theirs.
That didn’t happen, for after Odyssey Sims hit a soft jumper with 53 seconds left, after a questionable call by the officials went the wrong way and after the last-second prayer thrown up Linda Stepney went clank in the night, it was Baylor who was cutting down the nets.
So why are we turning to the column we had planned to write in victory?
It comes because this was a team that was bigger than winning and losing, a season bigger than winning and losing and coach who had finally transformed women’s basketball at West Virginia into just basketball.
That, you see, is the real miracle, one that will continue on into an NCAA Tournament that this WVU team won’t be favored to win but one in which you can’t just write them off. This loss, ending a 12-game winning streak, may just inject them with a dose of added incentive.
It begins, though, 13 years ago, at a time when West Virginia actually was losing games to Connecticut by scores like 100-28 and 97-34 and when the Mountaineers lost three consecutive road games while giving up 100, 116 and 111 points.
The school went out looking to find a coach who could change the women’s basketball culture and stumbled upon Mike Carey, a man’s man coaching the men’s team at Salem, playing a brand of basketball that did not go with the women’s game of the time.
He had to change; he knew that. But the women coming to WVU to play basketball had to change, too.
“On the men’s side, I was more about muscle, strength – I don’t want to say bullying, but … it was physical pounding, alley-oops, dunks,” he said.
Think show time … an entertaining brand of fast-break basketball built off a tough defense and playing with an attitude.
Could he create that on the women’s side? Should he create that?
“When I got on the women’s side, it wasn’t about that as much,” Carey said. “I’ve changed. Believe it or not, I’m not as aggressive or fired up – I’m still excited about the game – but I’m a little bit laid back on the sidelines from what I was in the beginning because on the women’s side you have to really pick and choose when you are going to go at it. Players respond in different ways.”
It is hard to call Carey laid back. His players will tell you that, but there really is a noticeable difference.
It comes with age and comes with a change of gender in the locker room.
These, though, are not the women he inherited. It is a different breed of player at West Virginia now, a different breed throughout the college game.
“The players are getting better. They are more athletic. When I started, I don’t know that anyone was dunking the ball on the women’s side. We have women’s players who dunk now,” he said. “We have guards – look at Bria Holmes – we have 6-foot-1 guards. That was unheard of then.”
Indeed, Bria Holmes is his best player, a sophomore out of North Carolina whose future is to dominate the women’s game, as soon as Carey brings her attitude up to match his. Against Baylor, she was the only player who played in the first half, scoring 19 points, but backed off in the second half rather than continuing to take the game over.
It is the way she is, but by next year you can rest assured that Carey will have planted in her the seed that it is her team.
Carey has created the type of team he has always wanted, but it did not come easily. When he left the men’s side and came to WVU to rebuild he had to recruit, yet he had no real idea what to look for.
“I think I know what to look for a little bit better now than when I first started coaching women,” he admits. “I know the style we want to play now, so it’s a lot easier to go out and identify recruits to play your style than it was in the beginning now.
“Let’s face it, you can go out and see who the elite top five or 10 players are … but you weren’t getting them. So you have to find players who aren’t the top five or 10,” Carey continued. “I just figured, if defense was the way we were going to play and we wanted people to play hard and have some length, then that’s the type of players we would go after.”
But it’s awfully hard to project what a high school senior or junior, playing against not very good competition on the women’s side, will be as college junior or senior … yet that was what he had to do.
“With recruiting, you don’t know until they get here. They look good. Everyone tells you how good they are and that they are good people and they work hard and all that, but when you get them here and get them up at 6 a.m. and they have to go flip a tire, you learn a lot about a person real quick. That’s when you really learn about them.”
And it’s also when you mold them into what you want, a team – a tough team – a group of young ladies who form into one, who accept a defense-first state of mind, who play a hard-nosed brand of what once was women’s basketball.
Who knows, this loss may be what they needed to roll deeply into the NCAA Tournament, but win or lose they will have changed the image of women’s basketball at West Virginia.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.