MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Madina Ali wants to make one thing perfectly clear right now, she’s going to miss some shots this year. It kind of makes you wonder, though, after watching her 7-for-7 shooting performance against St. Francis last Saturday that also included a perfect 4-for-4 night at the free throw line. Ali is presently the top field goal shooter in the Big East Conference, hitting 65 percent of her shot attempts.
Last year as a junior, her shooting percentage was 41.7 percent, which begs the question: what gives?
“I don’t know what that’s all about,” she shrugged. “Just working hard, I guess.”
Ali’s numbers are up across the board. She is leading the team in scoring (14.7 ppg.) and rebounding (7.4 rpg.), and is among the team leaders in blocks (15) and steals (24). Compared to last season, she is doubling her production in scoring and blocked shots on a team that is trekking toward the top of the national rankings.
Again, what gives, Madina?
“I have been thinking the same thing: what have I done different this year that I didn’t do last year,” she said. “I mean I always went out and played hard and was competitive – that burst of energy that coach wants me to bring on the floor, but I don’t know. I have no idea, but whatever it is I hope it continues.”
So does Mike Carey, whose best West Virginia teams seemed to always have strong play from its power forwards. Think back to the role Chakhia Cole played for the Mountaineers in 2008 when they went wire to wire in the national polls. That year Cole averaged 10.5 points, 5.9 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.7 steals and blocked 28 shots. Her all-around play was just all-around terrific.
Ali is playing a similar role for this year’s team, which is off to their best start in school history with an 11-0 record and a No. 6 national ranking heading into tonight’s game at North Carolina Central. Ali’s scoring has taken some of the pressure off of senior Liz Repella, who has been the No. 1 focus of opposing defenses for the last three years.
“Liz is just so good inside and out,” Ali explained. “It does help her having some people on the inside that score because when we kick it back out to her she’s wide open. I think it’s better for both parts, the inside part and the outside part.”
Ali believes the additions of Taylor Palmer, Ayana Dunning, Brooke Hampton and Jessica Harlee have also made a huge difference. For the first time really since Carey has been at West Virginia, he can go 10-deep off of his bench.
“It just goes to show when we bring those people in we can still play at the same pace,” Ali said. “I feel like we can always play with some type of experience on the court, especially with those minutes.”
For the past two years, four players have logged more than 1,000 minutes and that has taken a toll on their bodies at the end of the year, particularly during tournament time. This year’s team has 10 players averaging more than 10 minutes per game, and Carey is hopeful that will pay big dividends in March.
“All three of our freshmen have the ability to come in and put up big numbers and then our transfers that sat last year, they come in and bring a whole different spark to the guard and post positions,” said Ali. “I feel like our team is really balanced.”
What has made the Mountaineers’ current run so impressive is that they are doing it without their best player, Sarah Miles, first bothered by a wrist injury before hurting her knee during a Thanksgiving tournament in the Virgin Islands. The team is hopeful she can return when Big East play resumes in January.
“Sarah just brings out the best of us. Her energy on the court is unbelievable,” Ali said. “You can always tell when she’s playing because she brings us that extra boost not only offensively, but defensively too. Right now she talks to us from the bench and tells us what we’re doing wrong and what we’re doing right and helping us. Regardless of her presence on the court she’s always there.”
With Miles sidelined and Repella shooting in the mid-30s it’s amazing that this team is still rolling along the way it has been. Ali says she can see a silver lining in this.
“I always say to myself that we haven’t reached our maximum ability yet,” she said. “That’s a good thing because it might come when we least expect it.”
Ali has experienced nothing but success since she’s put on a West Virginia jersey. Including this year’s perfect start, the Mountaineers are 41-7 with her in the lineup. That is easily the best stretch of success in school history.
“It’s a good feeling and I just feel like last year we didn’t have any graduating players and this year we can still build on the team that we had last year,” Ali said. “Bringing those new people in helps us a whole lot and we have the mentality to win and the drive to go hard. We just want to be successful.”
That is obvious when you watch them play. This group works together and is supportive of each other; there are no agendas or cliques. And while Carey is tough and demanding on the court, Ali says he works just as hard to foster a family type atmosphere off it.
“It’s never about ‘I’ it’s always about ‘us’ and the team and our family, because that’s what we are,” she explained. “We can’t accomplish anything if we don’t have that mindset first.”
Now that West Virginia is among the nation’s elite, Ali understands the dynamics have changed considerably. Instead of sitting in the weeds waiting to ambush teams, West Virginia is now the team in people’s gun sights.
“We go out thinking we’re going to get the best from everyone and we don’t underestimate anyone because you never know what can happen,” she said. “We’ve just got to know who we’re playing and play Coach Carey’s game.”
And tonight that just happens to be North Carolina Central.
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