Sometimes this year’s West Virginia University women’s basketball team defies logic. The Mountaineers don’t handle the ball particularly well, they aren’t a great shooting team and they don’t have a reliable scorer.
And those things showed up again Saturday against 12th-ranked Louisville. West Virginia shot in the low 40s, including 4 of 17 from 3, and turned the ball over 17 times – and still won by 16 points.
“I think it’s our defense,” said West Virginia coach Mike Carey, who picked up his 18th victory over ranked teams at WVU. “If you look, we had 16 offensive rebounds and did a great job on the offensive glass. But we also created 24 turnovers. I really thought we played a smart game today.”
Had West Virginia, now 17-6, 7-3, made some open shots it would have won today by a much wider margin. “We had wide open 3s,” said Carey. “If we hit a couple of those, and make our layups, we probably beat them by 30. That’s how well we played on defense and rebounding.”
Frustrating teams is what West Virginia does best.
“That’s what we do. You’ll see a lot of people going out of their offense and just start doing ball picks, because that’s all they can get off of us,” said Carey. “If they come off staggers we switch them. We deny and fill up the lanes and they can’t run their reversals.”
Twenty days ago at Providence, West Virginia was the team getting frustrated after blowing a 10-point halftime lead and losing 51-48 to the Friars. But since then, the Mountaineers have won five out of six, the only setback being a 64-54 home loss to 15th-ranked Georgetown. West Virginia knocked off Marquette by 21 last Saturday and got a big road win at USF earlier this week.
“I thought the South Florida game we grew up a little bit at the end and it carried over into this game, and that’s a good sign to see,” said Carey.
West Virginia has one of the best post tandems in the Big East in 6-foot-4 Asya Bussie and 6-foot-3 Ayana Dunning, who are combining to average more than 19 points and 12 rebounds per game. Against Louisville, the pair produced 29 points and 14 rebounds. Defensively, they blocked three shots and changed several more.
“I think when Asya and (Ayana) are playing, and they're focused, they’re as good as any tandem in the country. I don’t care who it is,” said Carey. “(Ayana) can shoot the ball and she can pass. Asya can score. Asya did an excellent job of sealing up against the zone and in man. She was active today, and that’s something we want to continue to see out of her. I thought our guards did a good job of getting them the ball, too.”
One of those guards, Christal Caldwell, is the closest thing West Virginia has to a reliable scorer, the sophomore now averaging a shade below 12 points per game and matching that Saturday afternoon against Louisville.
Caldwell has reached double figures in each of her last 11 games and has almost doubled her scoring average since a mid-December loss at Duquesne. She had a season-high 25 against the Hoyas and added 20 in a recent win over Marquette.
West Virginia is also getting improved play from freshman point guard Linda Stepney, who was slowed earlier this year with a stress fracture in her right lower leg and is still receiving daily treatment for it.
Stepney scored 9 points and handed out four assists earlier this week at USF, and followed that up with a season-high 14 points to go along with four assists against Louisville. Stepney was 3 for 3 from behind the 3-point arc.
“I think Linda has been getting better as the season has gone on,” said Carey. “I think the last three games she has been attacking the rim. South Florida she did an excellent job attacking the rim and then tonight she continued to get better. When she started scoring, that opened up Asya and Ayana inside and now we’re tough to guard.”
According to Carey, Stepney is just now beginning to get into game shape.
“She’s playing a lot more minutes,” he said. “She played 29 and I think the other night she played like (30). She’s becoming a leader out there, too. I’m very happy with her progress.”
The coach is also seeing progress across the board.
“We’re learning in games. We’re paying attention more to our scouts,” he said. “We’re paying attention more in practice and then they’re getting a little bit of confidence. The players are saying, ‘Hey, maybe if we listen to what they say maybe that stuff will work.’ Hopefully that’s what they’re thinking.”
The victory Saturday was an important one for the Mountaineers because they are now into the teeth of their schedule, facing second-ranked Notre Dame next Sunday and then following that up with home games against 14th-ranked Rutgers and 23rd-ranked DePaul over the next 14 days.
“You can’t look far ahead in this league. You start looking down the road and anyone can beat you,” Carey said.
Carey knows next Sunday’s game will be a huge challenge for his young team. The Irish are 22-1 with their only loss coming at top-ranked Baylor back in November. Recently, Notre Dame beat ninth-ranked Tennessee by 28 on Jan. 23.
“Notre Dame is a great team,” said Carey. “We’re going to go over there and try and win the game, but win or lose, we’ve got to compete.
“Are they a great team and a veteran team? Absolutely,” Carey said. “They’re like a machine offensively, they’re aggressive, they press, they’re strong and they can run. We’ll have our hands full.”