|West Virginia players celebrate their first conference regular season championship in 22 years and only the second in school history.
|All-Pro Photography/Dale Sparks photo
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - You can count Kansas coach Bonnie Henrickson among the believers.
The veteran coach has had some excellent teams through the years at Virginia Tech and Kansas, including a couple of NCAA tournament Sweet 16 squads with the Jayhawks, and she likes what she sees from West Virginia this year.
“You look at their numbers and they're good, solid every night,” she said. “When they’ve been behind and they got back in it it’s because they can offensive rebound. They’re willing to do the tough things. Defensively, their fours can guard guards. You know how many special guards there are in this league, and they have four players who can switch everything with some of the best guards in America.
“(Jess) Harlee, (Averee) Fields and (Crystal) Leary can guard some of those guys on the perimeter, and that just makes it hard to reverse the ball. They can keep you stuck on one side.”
Tonight, West Virginia’s tough, 67-60 victory in grind-it-out-style helped the Mountaineers earn a share of the Big 12 regular season title the Mike Carey way – with defense, of course.
West Virginia didn’t shoot the ball particularly well, missing 12 in a row during one stretch in the first half, but the Mountaineers stuck with it because they stick to you, they rebound, and they do all the little things that Carey has been preaching ever since he switched over from the men’s side 13 years ago.
“I think defense travels,” Henrickson said. “You can have a bad night offensively, but if you’re good defensively you don’t have nights off.”
West Virginia (27-3) has only had few of those this year … a season-opening loss to Ohio State, an early January defeat at home against Baylor and a late January loss at Texas.
West Virginia is riding a 10-game winning streak heading into this year’s Big 12 tournament, which begins for the Mountaineers on Saturday night against either Texas Tech or TCU. How far West Virginia goes in Oklahoma City, and later in the NCAA tournament, will be determined by how much the Mountaineers can continue to harass people.
“You look at the tournament and how many teams can defend and rebound because the offensive numbers become so ugly when you get into the tournament,” Henrickson explained. “If you are built like that and you are a team that just wants to outscore people, which is not who they are; they can score, but they can also grind it out with you and win in the 50s because they’re comfortable playing that way, too.
“I would think they can make a heck of a run with the athletes they have,” Henrickson continued. “Who has had the best depth in the league this year? They do. Their depth is really impressive and that really matters when you get into foul trouble in tournament play.”
In the past, some of Carey’s teams also got into trouble because they couldn’t score at key times, either because of a lack of outside shooting, an inability to score close to the basket, or a combination of both.
This year, Henrickson believes West Virginia has more than enough offensive weapons to compliment an outstanding defense, and scoring lots of points can make a very good defense even that much better.
“I think where they’re different is offensively I think this is one of his best teams. Now he can speak better to that than I can, but I think offensively they’ve always been good and they’ve always been good on the glass, but now they can score on the perimeter and they can score inside,” Henrickson said. “(Senior center Asya) Bussie has had a great year - good for her coming off an ACL. That’s pretty cool.”
Henrickson says it’s also pretty cool to see a community rally around a basketball team the way Morgantown did tonight with an announced crowd of 5,052 coming out on a week night. That enthusiasm West Virginians showed here tonight for their team is good for women’s basketball players everywhere.
“I was happy for them that they had a crowd. They deserved it. I saw his (Carey’s) tweet was re-tweeted on ESPN. I’d rather play in an environment like this than 50 people, I’ll be honest with you,” she said. “I was excited for them that the community came out and recognized what a good year they’ve had and recognize these seniors. I thought that was pretty cool. I would have been disappointed if they didn’t, because these kids deserved it.”
They certainly did. Now it’s time to take the show on the road.