By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
West Virginia University’s women’s basketball team had just defeated Kansas, 67-60, to lay claim to a share of the Big 12 championship with Baylor on Tuesday night in the Coliseum, and someone had to sum up the feeling for the five seniors who had made the program grow to championship status.
That someone was Christal Caldwell.
“If anyone were to ask for the perfect Senior Night, this is what they would ask for,” she said.
Indeed it was.
They had completed a 27-3 regular season, 16-2 in the conference, won a game that might have been the toughest they had to play all year considering the circumstances and had done it with their seniors taking full control.
First the circumstances. They had played an emotion-sapping game at Baylor, winning a taut, tense, must-win game on a court where the home team had not lost to a conference opponent in 35 games, then experienced the trip from hell on the way home.
What was supposed to be a flight out of Waco turned into a three and a half hour bus ride through an ice storm to Austin, a flight not to Clarksburg as it was supposed to be but to Pittsburgh instead, where the roads were so bad they could not bus to Morgantown and had to spend the night.
If anything could distract them, if anything could have left them flat, this was it, but these were seniors who had won more games than any other senior class in school history. Asya Bussie, Caldwell, Jess Harlee, Brooke Hampton and Taylor Palmer were not going to let anything get in their way.
Each contributed. Bussie had 14 points, 9 rebounds, an assist and two steals, one of them pilfering the ball from a Kansas guard and taking it the length of the court for a layup. Caldwell had 14 points, six rebounds a couple of assists and two steals. Harlee was spectacular on defense, diving and sliding while adding nine points. Hampton, on a surgically repaired knee not yet ready to play, still made it out into the starting lineup for an emotional appearance.
And Palmer turned the game around.
Kansas had hung tough throughout by laying off point guards Linda Stepney and Darius Faulk, who hit but four of 12 shots combined and passed up seemingly hundreds of others. It was an effective strategy that had Carey scratching his head until he decided to put in Palmer, this fourth-year senior playing her 126th career game.
“Taylor never played point guard in her life,” said Carey.
That was a bit of an exaggeration as there is life before and after college. She just never had played point guard at WVU.
“It reminded me of playing in high school,” she said. “I played some point guard in high school.”
Why did she have to play the point?
Because she is an offensive threat, giving WVU five offensive threats on the court at the same time.
“We could stretch their defense,” Carey said.
She didn’t bring big offensive numbers, hitting for just five points, but she is a 1,000-point scorer and Kansas had to guard her, which meant they could not lay back on Bussie inside.
That turned the game in the second half. Taylor went into the game for Stepney with the score tied at 36-36 and 15:51 left to play.
Over the next three minutes WVU ran the lead out to 48-40, being able to get the ball inside because there now was room. First Bria Holmes, who led the scoring with 16 points, hit a layup, then Bussie hit two and Holmes hit another off a pass from Taylor.
From that point on WVU could taste the championship and while Kansas tried to erase a 13-point deficit, it couldn’t get closer than five points.
West Virginia did it the unorthodox way but the Mountaineers went out leading 32-28 at the half.
The pregame emotion was all a positive flow toward the five seniors celebrating senior night in a game that could bring WVU its first Big 12 championship, with flowers, hugs and plenty of tears.
Carey even showed how big hearted as he can be as he put Brooke Hampton, who had knee surgery less than a month ago, into the starting lineup, a gesture she will never forget.
As soon as WVU won the opening tip, Carey called time out and got Hampton out to a standing ovation.
It couldn’t have worked better, if only the game would have gone that way, but Kansas was in no mood to cooperate with the positive flow being generated throughout a Coliseum that filled up its lower level.
Early on the Mountaineer seniors were saying goodbye in a big way, Christal Caldwell scoring the first four points, Asya Bussie the next four for the Mountaineers, but the Jayhawks stayed close, seemingly taking advantage of whatever mistakes WVU would make.
Then, midway through the half with WVU’s lead stretched to five points on a layup by Darius Faulk, everything went haywire. No one could throw the ball into the basket.
For six minutes and 52 seconds the Mountaineers went without a basket.
Basket, heck … they went 6:52 without so much as a point, missing 11 consecutive shots, some of them uncontested at point-blank range.
Luckily, Kansas wasn’t doing much better. In fact, it took a 23-20 lead at 5:40 of the first half, then went 5:20 on their own without a basket, allowing WVU to hang in there and eventually grab the lead on a Bria Holmes 3 and then a magnificent series of plays by senior Jess Harlee, who blocked a shot at one end, got to the other and after missing up close, grabbed her own rebound and drew a foul.
She made the two free throws with 2.2 seconds left, allowing WVU to go in leading 32-28 despite shooting 35.3 in the first half.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.