MORGANTOWN, W. Va. – It seems as though anytime No. 2 Connecticut is mentioned in any sentence or discussion involving an opponent, the opponent is easily dismissed as posing no threat. And rightly so, for up until this past December, few teams had even come close to defeating dominant UConn.
But back on December 30th, No. 3 Stanford proved by upsetting the seven-time national champions and snapping their 90-game winning streak, that every winning streak must eventually come to an end and that on any given day, any team regardless of ranking or record can be beaten.
On Tuesday evening at 7 p.m., No. 17 West Virginia will attempt to achieve the same feat as Stanford, and upset the Huskies (22-1, 10-0 BIG EAST) in a re-match of last year’s BIG EAST Championship game. Only this time, the Mountaineers (20-4, 6-4 BIG EAST) have the advantage of playing at home in the Coliseum.
It won’t be an easy feat, by far. In order to tally the win, the Mountaineers need to find a way to stop senior forward Maya Moore, the nation’s leading scorer and the player considered by many to be the best collegiate women’s basketball player in the nation today.
“She can play several positions,” explained coach Mike Carey. “She can go down and post, she can shoot the 3 and she can jump up by the rim. You can lob the ball to her and she doesn’t pull it down, she just catches it and lays it in. She plays great defense, she gets a lot of steals and she gives up the ball when other people are open. Since I’ve been here I’ve seen a lot of great players at Connecticut, but there’s no doubt I truly believe she’s the best I’ve seen Connecticut have.”
Connecticut’s career scoring leader with a total of 2,731 points, Moore averages 24.5 points per game. In addition to that impressive statistic, she leads the team in steals (53), blocks (31) and assists (95). The team’s leading rebounder, pulling down an average of 8.3 boards per game, Moore also holds an 87.9 (87-of-99) free throw percentage, making it imperative that the Mountaineers are careful when committing fouls.
Against other teams, the ideal situation would involve the defense focusing on containing one or two players. But with Connecticut, every player is equally able to pick up the slack when offensively, one player is heavily guarded.
“It’s not like they’re hurting,” Carey said. “They have All-Americans all the way around. They only play six people and if they have to go seven, that’s rare for them. The majority of their starters are playing most of the minutes.”
If the Mountaineers can contain Moore, they’ll have junior guard Tiffany Hayes to deal with. Second in scoring on the team, she puts up an average of 15.6 points per game, while averaging 4.8 rebounds per game. She also has 39 steals to add to her resume. Freshman guard Bria Hartley rounds out the top three scorers, as she has 12.9 points per game for the Huskies.
The Mountaineers currently trail Connecticut, 22-1 in the all-time series with the only win coming during a tournament game at the Husky Classic on Jan. 22, 1982. Last year in the finals of the BIG EAST Tournament, Connecticut defeated West Virginia, 60-32. Last year during the regular season, the Huskies defeated the Mountaineers by a score of 80-47.
“It’s never a good time to play Connecticut,” said Carey. “You can ask Duke. Ask DePaul if they were happy to play them the other night. They’re a great team and they have the best player in America in Maya Moore. But we have to go into this game believing we can win. We have to envision winning it or we’ll never have a chance. We have to go in trying to win this basketball game and we’ll see what happens.”
West Virginia enters the game coming off a hard fought loss to Pitt on Saturday afternoon at the Coliseum in front of the third largest crowd in program history with 8,025 fans. Despite putting forth a great effort, the Mountaineers struggled to find the basket and although they took the lead with 2:40 remaining in the game, they couldn’t hold on to the advantage.
“It wasn’t the effort,” Carey said. “It just all comes down to execution. We’re just not executing. These are great young ladies and they work hard. It seems like we get into the game and if we don’t start scoring it becomes mental. I think it’s more mental now than it is physical.”
“I don’t think any of us thought we would have lost three out of four games,” said co-captain Liz Repella. “But there’s no time to hang your head. We’re in the BIG EAST Conference and we have five seniors on this team. We’re not going to fold. We’re not. We’re going to go into practice every day and work.”
As the team’s leading scorer, Repella has been averaging 14.1 points per game for the Mountaineers. In addition, she leads the team in steals (48) and 3-pointers made (45). Madina Ali places second in scoring, with 13.2 points per game, while holding the fourth-highest field goal percentage in the league (57.8 percent). With 6.9 rebounds per game, she also leads the team in rebounding.
Asya Bussie is currently fourth in the West Virginia record books for career blocks as she owns a team-high 42 blocks. She also rounds out the top three scorers, with 7.6 points per game.
The Mountaineer defense will need to continue its dominant play in order to sustain its offense. West Virginia has held all opponents except for Georgetown and DePaul to less than 50 percent shooting from the field as the defense allows an average of 49.6 points per game, the second-lowest defensive average in the nation. Adding into the defensive mindset, the Mountaineers are fourth in the country in blocked shots as they average 6.3 per game, and are 26th nationally for a steals per game average of 11.8.
“We’re going to play our defense like we always do,” Repella said. “We’re going to really concentrate because they have a lot of offensive threats. They have it all so we’re going to have to play a defensive game.”
The WVU-Connecticut game is a Dairy Mart Dollar night. Fans can stop by Morgantown area Dairy Marts and pick up a coupon redeemable for $1 admission into the game.
The contest will air live on CBS College Sports with Dan Ryan calling play-by-play and Deb Antonelli providing analysis. In addition, Travis Jones and Jay Jacobs will broadcast the game live on MSN radio.