By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
What was accomplished Sunday afternoon in Waco, Tex., with the most improbable finish off a season filled with improbable finishes really started a couple of years back for the West Virginia women’s basketball team that tries to close out a Big 12 championship season with a victory over Kansas on Senior Night.
It was Feb. 12, 2012, and WVU had traveled to South Bend, Ind., to take a whipping from No. 2 Notre Dame, the second game in a string of what would be five in a row against nationally ranked opponents. You could not figure that any outcome but a loss made sense for Notre Dame not only was at home but at home riding a 21-game winning streak.
But West Virginia had other ideas, even after falling behind by 11 points, 48-37, with 13:05 left, only to mount a comeback that would be the prototype comeback upon which this season has been built.
“I told the girls don’t quit,” coach Mike Carey said at the time. “I said I don’t care if you foul out, but I better not see you quit playing hard. Just keep playing like we practice to do and they kept believing, believing, believing.”
And, obviously, still do … especially Asya Bussie.
In that Notre Dame game she scored the basket that tied the score, setting the stage for Brooke Hampton to knock down two free throws in the final seconds to give WVU the upset.
Bussie scored 22 points in that game and following it Carey was moved to remark, “Asya Bussie has been carrying us for the last two or three games.”
The Notre Dame win really wasn’t any different than the run of six comeback wins in the final eight minutes of WVU games this season, the last of course being the greatest of all of them, erasing an 11-point lead on the home court where Baylor had won 35 consecutive conference games.
In fact, West Virginia held Notre Dame to its lowest point total of the season in that road upset, just as they held Baylor to its lowest point total of the season on its home court.
And again, after missing last year with a knee injury suffered the first day of practice, Bussie was the driving force behind the comeback, scoring 21 points and what had to be a hundred pounds of flesh in a physical, taut, emotional game in which WVU got more floor burns than free throws made.
Bussie, a five-year senior who has started every game since she came to WVU and a team captain, is the central figure tonight when WVU honors a distinguished group of five seniors, all of whom have played major roles in WVU’s rise to national prominence.
Taking their final walk down the carpet this evening with be Bussie, guard Christal Caldwell, guard Taylor Palmer, guard Brooke Hampton and forward Jess Harlee.
“I’d like to have Asya 10 more seasons,” Carey admitted. “If I could, I’d act like she was hurt in the last game of the year and try to get another year with her.”
He was joking, yes, but he left no doubt that there is a special place in his heart for Bussie and what she has done for and meant to the WVU program.
“Asya Bussie is a special player, a special person. Everybody felt so bad for her last year [when she injured her knee] because it was her senior year. For her to have such a productive year this year it’s great for her. It’s worth coming back for. Put it that way.”
What Bussie has done has set a tone for the team that falls in line with Carey’s philosophies – defense first and unselfishness.
“I’ve said her freshman year Asya’s one of the best defensive players I’ve had. It’s not as far as blocking shots and lift. It’s laterally and talking and communicating and being in position to box out and that. I’ve said that since her freshman year and she continues to do that.
“Asya loves to play. Asya loves to win. She’s been our captain for three years and it’s been for a reason. She’s such a leader. I’d like to have 10 players like Asya Bussie, not just on the floor but off the floor. She’s so mature. It’s a pleasure to have her.”
In truth, though, the whole senior class has been like Bussie, defense-first players, team players … they have enduring difficulties and survived. Like Bussie, Harlee and Hampton underwent surgeries, Palmer agreed to give up a starting job to come off the bench to help the team.
“This year we want to leave our mark,” Caldwell said. “We want to go on to the Big 12 Tournament, to the NCAA Tournament and say we started this at WVU and to know other groups will come on and continue this.”
Now they have one more game to win to take the regular-season title, facing a Kansas team they beat by 10 points in Lawrence, a game in which Bussie recorded a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds and in which WVU used a 16-0 run to overcome a 45-41 deficit midway through the second half.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.