HARTFORD, Conn. – At this time last year, the West Virginia University women’s basketball team entered the BIG EAST Championship in need of a few more wins to solidify their place in the NCAA Tournament.
This year, that’s not the case.
“Last year at this time we were really worried and we needed to win at least one maybe two games at BIG EAST,” said head coach Mike Carey. “This year we finished 11-5 and the pressure is not on us as much as it was last year. But we still want to go up there and play well and we still want to go up there and win some games. What we need to do now is win some games to help our seeding.”
With their fifth-place regular-season finish, the Mountaineers (21-8, 11-5 BIG EAST) earned a first-round bye, and will be facing Syracuse on Saturday at noon at the XL Center. The Orange (18-13, 6-10 BIG EAST) enter Saturday’s contest having defeated Providence, 57-47, in their first round game on Friday afternoon.
The last time the teams met in December, West Virginia pulled out the 76-72 win behind junior Asya Bussie and redshirt-junior Ayana Dunning who each scored a career-best 19 points to combine for 38 points overall.
The Mountaineers also out-rebounded Syracuse in that game, 46-39, an important statistic as the Orange hold the third-highest rebounding margin in the league (+9.6), and lead the BIG EAST in offensive rebounds (20.4).
“We didn’t let them dominate us on the boards, and that’s going to be key again,” said Carey.
The Orange are led by three players in double figures. Senior forward Iasia Hemingway is averaging 15.5 points per game, the seventh-highest scoring average in the league.
Behind Hemingway, junior center Kayla Alexander holds the ninth-highest average in the league with 14.9 points per game while junior guard Carmen Tyson-Thomas rounds out the top three scorers with 10.7 points per game.
Tyson-Thomas also leads Syracuse on the glass and in steals, averaging 7.8 rebounds per game and notching 62 steals on the season. Behind her, Alexander averages 7.6 rebounds per game.
“The last time we played Syracuse we got them in foul trouble a little bit so we have to try and do that again and contain their guards,” Carey said. “They don’t have a lot of great 3-point shooters, but they have a lot of people that can drive. They’re in the top ten in all rebounding categories so it’s going to be very important on the boards.”
The Mountaineers enter Saturday’s game also with three players averaging double figure scoring numbers. Bussie, recently named first team All-BIG EAST, paves the way with 12.1 points per game and 6.6 rebounds per game.
Behind her, redshirt-sophomore Christal Caldwell, who was named to the All-BIG EAST honorable mention list, averages 11.9 points per game. She recorded double-figure scoring numbers in 16 straight games before being limited to just seven points in the Mountaineers’ last regular-season game against Pitt.
Sophomore Taylor Palmer rounds out the top three scorers, averaging 11.1 points per game. She leads the team in threes made with 65, and has had four 20-point outings this season.
On the defensive side of the ball, West Virginia has limited 20 opponents to under 60 points this season.
They’ve also out-rebounded 24 opponents this season including 13 BIG EAST opponents. Dunning leads the team with 8.7 rebounds per game, the fifth-highest average in the league. She paced West Virginia in rebounding 14 times this season and has had 10 double-figure rebounding games.
Behind Dunning and Bussie, Caldwell averages 6.2 rebounds per game.
WVU’s game will be broadcast live on the BIG EAST Network and SportsNet New York and will stream live free at www.bigeast.org and ESPN3.com. Locally, Fox affiliate WVFX will carry the game live and Root Sports will re-air the game at midnight, while Mid-Atlantic Sports Network will re-air it at 2 a.m. It will also air live on WFGM with Travis Jones on the call.
The quarterfinal and semifinal rounds held on March 4-5 will be on ESPNU, while the championship game on Tuesday, March 6 at 7 p.m., will be carried live on ESPN/ESPN2.