By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
It’s a long, long way from West Virginia to Storrs, Conn., if you’re driving.
It’s a longer way if that drive happens to be on the women’s basketball court.
Storrs happens to be the home for the University of Connecticut women’s basketball team, a group that has earned the right to believe that the national championship in the sport is its birthright, winning the title year after year after year.
This, however, may be the year that someone slips it away and the upstart team from West Virginia University believes it can dethrone the queens of women’s basketball.
“We want to win the national championship. That’s our goal, to win the national championship,” senior Liz Repella, the emotional leader of this year’s edition of coach Mike Carey’s team proclaimed before the first jump ball of the season.
To date, the Mountaineers have done nothing to make that goal look any less realistic, even if Connecticut still seems to be the team to beat and is playing on a slightly higher level than WVU.
The Mountaineers started their season off with some major problems, yet found a way to overcome them and ran off 10 consecutive victories. That pushed their national ranking to No. 7, matching the highest level it has ever reached.
Last Feb. 22, the Mountaineers, which contained almost everyone on this team, topped out at No. 7 in the poll. With the addition of a couple of injured players back from last year and freshmen, this team believes it is even better than that.
However, it has had to play much of the season without its soul, if Repella is the team’s heart.
Fleet Sara Miles, the point guard, has been injured for most of the season. She missed the opener as a hand injury suffered in pre-season healed. Then, after playing four games, she went down to injury again.
Normally, losing a senior point guard on a team without an experienced replacement would be devastating, but Carey this year recruited a nearly flawless floor leader in Brooke Hampton, a freshman out of Colts Neck, N.J.
While having a problem scoring and shooting only 28.6 percent, Hampton has been nearly perfect running the team, putting together 32 assists to only five turnovers.
Any way you look at that it is incredible — one turnover every two games or one turnover every 37 minutes on the floor.
She has fit in perfectly with a pair of talented seniors who are focused completely on beating UConn out of first the conference title and second the national title.
The first is Repella, who has played four marvelous seasons as a student-athlete, hitting the books as hard as the hardwood.
Repella was second on the team in scoring, rebounds and in assists through the first 10 games. A hard worker on the court, she averages 14.0 points a game while putting up 26 assists and pulling down 5.9 rebounds per game.
You talk about consistency, a year ago Repella average 13.9 points a game and the same 5.9 rebounds per contest.
The player who has stepped up the most this year is forward Madina Ali, another senior who has taken this senior thing seriously.
A year ago she was a member of the choir, scoring just 6.7 points a game, being more of a rebounder with 7.0.
This year she’s been a different player, a player who has surged into the scoring lead by averaging 14.4 points per contest while leading in rebounding with 7.4 boards.
Ali has done this while playing only 22.2 minutes a game.
It is, however, on the defensive end where the Mountaineers do their best work, holding opponents to just 48.7 points a game and not yet having given up more than 58 points in any game.
The guards pressure and the big ladies underneath, Asya Bussie and Korinne Campbell, are playing tall and grabbing rebounds, the two averaging 10 a game combined.
The key, however, is depth, for WVU is actually playing 10 players more than 14 minutes a game.
But hanging over all of it is the huge shadow UConn casts and the memory of the day just a decade ago when the Huskies came to Morgantown and humiliated Alexis Basil’s women’s team, 100-28.
“I think we have to beat them eventually,” Carey said when asked if his team could reach for the stars without beating UConn. “I agree with that 100 percent, but no one has beaten them over the last two years.
“We have beaten everyone in the conference since I’ve been here ... except Connecticut. We need to do that, whether it’s this year or in the future.”
Conference play in the new year begins Jan. 5 at Seton Hall with the home conference opener being against Cincinnati on Jan. 8.
E-mail Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org.