MORGANTOWN — On Sunday, as Kari Niblack lay in pain on the Coliseum floor, it appeared there was less chance of her coming back in that game than was of Clemson coming back and catching LSU after Joe Burrow got wound up in the CFP Championship football game.
But Niblack would have none of it.
She admits she was scared that she’d suffered a serious knee injury. Around the West Virginia women’s basketball program they seem to come by the dozen.
And there was the pain.
“When I was walking to the training room, I was scared because it hurt. But when the dude came in and checked me out, let me walk around on it and run around on it in the training room, it started feeling better,” she said after she saved the game and the season for West Virginia, going and getting an offensive rebound on Kysre Gondrezick’s missed free throw, then getting it back out to her for a 3-point shoot that keyed WVU’s victory over Texas.
It was a tough play made in a tough situation by a tough woman.
But then toughness, thy name is Kari Niblack — she’s so tough that Coach Mike Carey said on his Monday night radio show that he expects her to be ready to go on Wednesday night at 7 when Oklahoma challenges WVU at the Coliseum.
When did she realize she was a tough character?
“Basically when I started playing basketball,” she said. “I emphasize physicality. That’s why I love this game so much. I feel like me playing that tough role, being the one who gets down and dirty is what I want to be for my team.”
That, of course, made one wonder whether this was always a part of her persona.
“We did a video about why we started playing basketball,” she said, talking about her and her West Virginia teammates. “I said when I started playing basketball, I hated it. Then I grew into it.
“When we got to middle school I was bigger than everybody and could bully my way down low. I loved that. Don’t know why, but I’m pretty much of a bully. I was the oldest one then and, yeah, I picked on the younger ones.”
But that was then and this is now. This is the Big 12, emphasis on Big.
Kari Niblack is listed at 6-foot-1, which is big for a woman, but in this league you run across 6-foot-5 or bigger opponents or teammates all the time. Last year, out of necessity, Mike Carey had to play her down low.
She had a big freshman year playing out of position, averaging 9.7 points a game but more important averaging 7 rebounds a game while playing 33 games — all of them tough.
“I knew in high school I wasn’t going to always be the 5. Last year, having to play the 5 for Coach Carey was great, but it was obvious that wasn’t where I was going to be,” she said. “I spent a lot of work trying to expand to a guard. I enjoyed playing the 5 and giving it my all and getting some success out of it.”
She has carved a niche this year playing as 4, averaging 9.6 points a game on a team where the scoring comes mostly from Gondrezick and Tynice Martin, who are averaging 18 and 17 points a game respectively.
But, against Kansas the other day, Carey got frustrated by his post defense.
“The other day, Kansas, was getting into the paint too easy. Our 5s weren’t doing a great job, so I moved Kari there and had about seven or eight blocked shots. They stopped going in the paint after that,” he said.
She says she remains comfortable playing inside, especially if she is doing it as a 4.
“I’ve picked up my role at 4, not playing with my back to the basket. I like to be able to take people down there. I can get over them,” she said.
Meanwhile, she keeps working on her overall game.
“I have improved a lot. A lot of people have come to me and said they like my new pull up jumper. Last year, playing with my back to the basket, I had zero confidence in my outside game,” she said.
“It’s something I should have been working on. This past off-season that’s where all the work went, strictly guard skill work. They are still trying to instill confidence in me in my pull up J or just a regular jumper. They are trying to get me to shoot the 3. We’ll see.”
So far this season she’s taken one 3 and missed it.
No one complained.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.