By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
It has not come easily to Mike Carey and his West Virginia women’s basketball team.
Not this year, which was supposed to be the year after or the year before.
This was a learning season, a season in which young players and older players were to mix, to learn each other’s strengths and weaknesses, to figure out what Coach Carey expected and what they had to give.
This wasn’t the year it was supposed to happen, not with the freshman point guard hurt early and with only one senior, she riding the bench most of the time.
Oh, they had talent and they had potential, but this was women’s basketball at West Virginia and that comes with its own limitations, so no one was really expecting much when the Mountaineers’ unranked, youthful team went into South Bend to get its whipping from the nation’s No. 2 team, the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame.
But when it was over it was Carey’s ladies whooping it up, leaping in the air, hugging and shouting, a two-point victory secured when Brooke Hampton sank a pair of free throws in the closing five seconds.
WVU had beat no team higher than No. 5 in the rankings ever, until this moment when Asya Bussie was clinching Big East Women’s Player of the Week and West Virginia women’s player of the century with 22 points, eight rebounds, three blocks and three steals.
“It felt amazing,” she would say in the press room after the celebration was over. “It is a big win for us. It doesn’t mean anything though if we don’t get these next couple games coming up.”
That, though, is just so much talk because this was the game that told WVU it belonged with the best, that it is growing as the season is growing, that it not only could beat the nation’s No. 2 team, but do it on their home floor.
Carey called it “a great win.”
Great does not cover it. This was an unexpected, gigantic step forward, a year premature, perhaps, but a sign of arrival among the women’s basketball elite for WVU. The previous game they had knocked off Louisville, ranked 12th and 14th, and are looking behind them at two nationally ranked teams.
See, this was not easy. In fact, WVU had everything going against it.
“I thought our players came in here, even though we’re young, and got in foul trouble early and we had to play some players who don’t play a lot of minutes and they did a great job,” Carey said. “I’m very proud of our team. I thought they came in here with a tough crowd of 9,000 or more people and a great atmosphere, but our players did a great job.”
Much of it came from Bussie, a junior who has been up and down but suddenly seems to have grown into a basketball queen.
“Asya Bussie in the last two or three games has been carrying us,” Carey said. “Ayana Dunning, when we went high-low, that gives us a great tandem right there.”
Indeed, WVU can go inside, can use muscle and take advantage of its size on offense.
But this is not a team that lives on its offense. It is among the best of the nation’s defensive teams.
“We did a good job switching and didn’t give them the high-low at times and made them come over the top for the switch,” Carey said. “My biggest concern was we were fouling people 50 feet from the bucket and put them at the line. We have to play smarter than that. I think our girls did a great job. Both teams got into a little bit of foul trouble and we were able to get a big win.”
There was nothing subtle about the approach. This was a man’s game played by women.
“Notre Dame’s guards are so physical and we had to sit down and get physical with them or they will just throw you out of the way and get a layup. We tried to get our guards to sit down and body them up a little bit more,” Carey explained.
In truth, it will never be the same for WVU’s women’s basketball. Expectations now rise, not for next year, but for now. There’s the Big East Tournament ahead and then the NCAAs and this is a team that can only become more experienced and grow better.
“We have so many new players and after losing five players last year and almost 90 percent of our offense, for these girls to get this type of win on the road, it will do a lot for their confidence. We have to build on this. We cannot be satisfied with it. We have five more games to play and a long way to go,” said Carey.
All the way to the Big 12, where only the nation’s No. 1 team, Baylor, and Nebraska are ranked among the Top 25.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.