By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Mike Carey was not a happy camper, and considering that his West Virginia University women’s basketball team had just scored a double-figure victory over a Top 25 opponent in Iowa State, this should tell you he believes this to be a special group of young women.
In truth, if he can drag their best out of them down the stretch and through the Big 12 Conference Tournament and into the NCAA Championships, this well could be a Final Four team.
It is that deep, and that is not just an opinion offered by a hometown sports writer who might be looking with heart rather than his mind.
It is shared within the Big 12. Listen to Bill Fennelly, the Iowa State coach, after WVU got through roughing his group up on Wednesday evening.
“That’s a really good team – long, athletic, deep … they just keep running bodies at you. If you’re not knocking down shots to stem that tide a little bit, you’re in trouble,” he said. “That’s certainly a team that’s going to cause a lot of trouble in our league. They already have. They will be in the NCAA Tournament. They are very well coached. They play well, and they play hard.”
Indeed, Carey has built this group slowly and carefully, putting it together not around a star, even though in Bria Holmes and Asya Bussie he has a pair of players who well could be All-America candidates.
“They are very interchangeable parts,” Fennelly continued, trying to offer a view of what it is like to coach against them. “You can’t take one kid away from them. You look at a scouting report, and there’s a different name at the top of different scouting reports on them. That’s a very unique thing. Their versatility, their ability to be interchangeable at both ends of the court is very unique.
“That’s why they are 18-3 and going to challenge for a Big 12 championship.”
It’s also why Carey was upset in this game, for they came out, after having lost a difficult three-point decision at Texas, without any life. The first 10 minutes of the game against Iowa State at home – admittedly against a disappointing crowd of just 1,229 – they were listless and lifeless.
It took Bria Holmes to ignite a 20-2 run to close the half and give WVU a 42-21 halftime lead.
Holmes did it with a pair of 3-point shots and some big-time play during the run.
“She’s an all-conference player who has gotten better and better,” said Fennelly. “They use her in a lot of different ways. She can stretch the defense, make 3s in transition, hard off the bounce … and she defends, too. She’s a kid who has already had a great run and I think she’ll have two more years. She’s pretty special.”
And you put her out there with Bussie, and you have a pair of special players at center and forward, surrounded by depth at the guard positions.
“Bussie’s a kid you have to account for, so when you go help, someone else is open,” Fennelly explained. “She gets to the free-throw line. Her game is inside out. When you have that to go with those other pieces, you are literally saying, ‘Which
one tonight?’ In most cases when they play well it’s more than one, and that’s why they are really hard to play against.”
So what happened? Why did WVU not play to its best game for 30 of the 40 minutes against Iowa State? Why other than that furious 20-2 run were the Mountaineers outscored the rest of the game 54-47?
That is what has Carey concerned. This is a senior-dominated team with Bussie, Cristal Caldwell, Brooke Hampton, Jess Harlee and Taylor Palmer down to their final nine regular-season games, and Carey expects to see the most he’s ever seen out of them down the stretch.
“We weren’t hyped like we normally are before games,” Holmes said. “We weren’t smiling and laughing. Everyone had a serious face. Coach Carey felt we weren’t ready for the game.”
“These seniors, you’d hope they’d take ownership of this team going down the stretch because we need to win a lot more games in these last nine,” Carey said. “I hope they respond. If not, it’s going to be a long nine games because, I’ll tell you what, this is the flattest I’ve seen us this year.
“We’ve got nine games left and are trying to do something special. If you want to do something special, you have to play hard,” Carey continued. “Our goal is to go far in the NCAA Tournament and get a high seed. A lot of teams that are in the Top 25 are hosting, so you are probably going to wind up where someone is hosting, but you don’t want it to be a high seed’s home floor. That’s why these games are so important. In the NCAA it’s one and out, so we cannot afford to do this.
“If we come out the next game and play hard and get beat, we just didn’t shoot well, we turned it over too much, whatever. But for me to sit up there and say we didn’t play hard is hard for me because I just don’t accept that. I’m frustrated about that and I’m disappointed.”
They have a chance to make amends Saturday night at TCU.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.