The Times West Virginian

Sports

March 1, 2014

HERTZEL COLUMN: WVU ‘can do great things’ with Bussie

MORGANTOWN — It started back on Nov. 8, less than four months ago on the Gregorian calendar but a lifetime in a basketball coach’s life.

West Virginia University’s women’s basketball team was about to start its season, filled with optimism built on having a veteran team with proven players and a returning star in center Asya Bussie, coming off a year rehabbing a knee she had injured on the first day of practice the year before.

They were thinking big thoughts, championship thoughts, NCAA thoughts.

As Mike Carey thought about it Friday, just two days before he was to coach the biggest game of his coaching career, a road showdown at Baylor which could earn him a share of the lead in the Big 12 Conference with just one game to play, he knew how optimistic he was.

“With Asya Bussie back giving us that center to compete at the national level, this team overall can do great things,” he said on Friday. “I felt that going into the season, then we lost that first game to Ohio State and I thought, ‘That’s not a good way to start a season.’”

A similar thing had happened to West Virginia’s football team starting the 1998 season. The Mountaineers were ranked 11th in the nation, at home and opening with No. 1 Ohio State, believing they could win the game and the national championship, only to lose 34-17 and wind up the year with four losses.

The same fate might have awaited this WVU women’s team, but all season long Carey has talked about the leadership of his team, about its character and about what having five seniors – especially Bussie – was doing for the team.

And, of all the things Bussie has done on the court this year, what she did that day in the locker room may have been the biggest thing.

She got up there before the team and proclaimed, “Obviously, we’re not as good as we think we are. We can’t just go out on the court and think teams are going to give us the game. We have to work for it.”

That changed everything. The team did not question itself, did not think its season had been ruined.

It just rededicated itself to reaching its potential.

“I remember after the Ohio State game Asya standing there and saying, ‘Look, y’all, maybe we aren’t as good as we think we are.’ I always remember her saying that and us coming back the next practice and trying to get better,” said another senior, Christal Caldwell.

“We realized that just because we had five seniors and are experienced it didn’t mean we were going to just come out and win every game. We had to work to succeed. We can’t just go out on the court and think teams are going to give us the game. We have to work for it.”

And that was what they did. They forced the issue, never really playing overwhelming basketball, often having to dig deep down inside to come back from deficits, more than once overcoming double-digit deficits.

They were a team that would not be beaten and now the Mountaineers have arrived at the point with two games left in the regular season where, if they beat Baylor and then come home and beat Kansas on Senior Night they will at worst share the regular-season championship and finish with three losses.

No team that Carey ever coached lost fewer than six games, and with the Big 12 Tournament and the NCAA one-and-out, if WVU does win these final two games it could lose no more than five.

But more important, if the Mountaineers can beat Baylor, if they can tie for or win outright the conference crown, they will move out from under the shadow that had been cast over them year after year after year, a shadow from Connecticut, from Notre Dame, from Baylor … all national powers, all in their conference.

“That’s why you’ve got to go for it,” Carey said, noting that it isn’t often you find yourself in a position to be able to accomplish so much. “Have no regrets. Win or lose, we will give it our best shot. Hopefully that’s enough to win this game.”

Caldwell, while saying she wasn’t frustrated by the position WVU had been in, admitted she is ready to move onward and upward.

“Sometimes it’s good to be the underdog and to expect people to overlook you and let you prove a point, but now we can play with anybody in the country, so we’re kind of tired of playing in other people’s shadow now,” she said.

They have won nothing yet … except for respect, and that is a lot.

“No matter what happens the rest of the season, I think we left a mark. We just want to continue that and win this conference championship, this Big 12 championship and the NCAA,” Bussie said.

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.

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