|Sophomore Bria Holmes leads the Mountaineers in scoring with an average of 14.5 points per game.
|Dale Sparks/All-Pro Photography photo
Lester Rowe has been around a lot of good basketball teams through the years and he is currently involved with another good one as an assistant coach on Mike Carey’s West Virginia women’s basketball staff.
Rowe played on one of the better teams in WVU history in 1982, when the Mountaineers rose to No. 6 in the national rankings and won a nation’s best 23 consecutive games that year. He was also a first-year assistant coach on Gale Catlett’s staff in 1998 when West Virginia won 24 games and narrowly fell to national runner-up Utah in a Sweet 16 round game in Anaheim, Calif.
So Rowe knows a good team when he sees one, and he says this year’s WVU women’s team, currently ranked 13th in the country with a 22-3 record, has all of the characteristics of some of the best teams of which he’s been a part.
“This team has great chemistry,” said Rowe, now in his third season working with the WVU women. “Our kids have spent a lot of time together, even when they don’t have to.”
Rowe said the sting of last year’s defeat at Delaware in the first round of the NCAA tournament was a major catalyst for this year’s team, especially its five seniors. Those girls put in a lot of hard work on their respective games during the offseason.
“When we lost to Delaware last year on their home court, those kids felt like we didn’t play our best game on that particular day and got beat,” he said. “You’ve got to give them some credit because they got into the gym and they remembered that feeling and they don’t want to have that feeling again. They worked hard all summer long, and now we’re seeing the dividends of all that hard work.”
Like those ’82 and ’98 men’s squads that Rowe was involved with, this year’s women’s team is deep and talented with an expectation of winning every time they step on the floor.
There were no superstars on those ’82 and ’98 WVU teams, guard Greg Jones in ’82 and forward Damian Owens in ’98 the two guys closest to being elite-level players, and this year’s women’s team doesn’t have an Angel McCoughtry, Elena Della Donne, Brittney Griner or a Diana Taurasi who can singlehandedly carry a team deep into the tournament, but Asya Bussie
and Bria Holmes
are both terrific players. Those two can play for any team in America.
West Virginia’s complementary players are good enough, too, plus, they are committed to Carey’s style of play and have taken on their coach’s personality on the floor.
“The one thing that jumps off the page at you is you have a bunch of people buying into the system,” said Rowe. “They don’t care what their role is, they just want to do whatever they need to do to help the team win and reach its goals. The other characteristic is none of the players have big egos. If somebody is having an off night and another person comes off the bench and plays well, they are all cheering for each other.”
Bob Huggins mentioned the other day that his men’s program will likely never have the five best players in the country – and the same probably applies to Mike Carey’s WVU women’s teams – but that doesn’t mean they can’t have five players playing the best as a team. And that’s what Carey is striving for this season.
“Coach (Sharrona) Reaves summed it up the best way,” explained Rowe. “She always tells the girls to find a way and that’s what they do. They find a way to win a basketball game. We’ve been down in something like six games we’ve had this year in the Big 12 and come back and won them. That’s a great characteristic to have because if your team gets down they can come back, but it’s also a thing that you don’t want to make a habit of it either.
“When you get into the tournament and you run up against a good team and they are eventually going to catch you,” Rowe added. “You can’t always get down 12, 13, 14 points and catch back up.”
It’s clear West Virginia is now playing for seeding in this year’s NCAA tournament, which means these games coming up, first against Oklahoma State on Wednesday night, and then against Kansas State, Texas Tech, Baylor and Kansas, are so important.
Seeding for the women’s NCAA tournament is perhaps even more vital than in the men’s tournament because the first round sites for the women are played at home venues to maximize attendance.
One could argue that it’s more difficult advancing past the first weekend of play in the women’s NCAA tournament than it is moving beyond that because of the home-court advantages the higher seeds enjoy. That’s likely why you see many of the same teams advancing to the Sweet 16, Elite Eight and beyond each year.
Some of the places West Virginia could end up this year include: Baton Rouge, La., Chapel Hill N.C., College Park, Md., Durham, N.C., Knoxville, Tenn., Storrs, Conn., University Park, Pa. and Waco, Texas.
Do those places sound familiar?
“You look at the draws Coach Carey has had in recent years,” Rowe pointed out. “You play at Ohio State on their home court. You play New Mexico at the Pit. You play Delaware last year on their home court. You play Baylor two years before that in Waco. That’s tough.”
Once again, that’s why these upcoming games for the Mountaineers will be so critical in determining their final destination. And none of them will be easy.
Rowe had the TCU scout last Sunday and he also has this Wednesday’s scout against Oklahoma State. He knows how difficult this conference is night in and night out.
In the Big East, there were terrific teams at the top of the league but there were also automatic wins at the bottom, and depending upon how the schedule fell, you could sometimes avoid multiple games against some of the better teams in the conference.
In the Big 12 there is no walking between the raindrops - you play everybody twice.
“From top to bottom this league is unbelievable,” Rowe said. “You look at TCU’s record and you see 14 wins and you say, well, this might be a win. No. You look at (last place) Texas Tech. They’ve got some talent on that team. They have a new coach there and there are going to be some growing pains, but that team is going to be pretty good. They are hanging in there and playing everybody tough.
“There are no gimmes in this league.”
No, beginning with Wednesday night’s game against the 12th-ranked Cowgirls.
We’ll see you at the Coliseum.