Barring another match in the Big East tournament later this season, this was scheduled to be Kate Bulger's last shot at Notre Dame, a school that she and her family have a long history with. And, making the victory extra sweet for Mountaineer fans, the Irish were fresh off a 66-51 victory over the #4 Connecticut Huskies coming into Morgantown.
The real question would be, with such a short bench (Mike Carey only had eight players again truly at 100%), how could the Mountaineers expect to compete, much less win, against the Irish? The answer, actually, turned out to be quite simple: stay poised and intense, minimize fouls, and play team basketball. Those were the elements that combined for what wound up being an overwhelming victory over the Irish.
The game didn't start out the way West Virginia wanted. After winning the tip, Jacqueline Batteast scored a quick bucket to make the score 2-0. WVU then took a 4-2 lead off of a pair of free throws from Michelle Carter and a bucket from Sherell Sowho. At that point, though, WVU went cold as ice from the floor and it looked like the Batteast/Courtney LaVere show was about to begin. The two combined to make the score 10-4 in favor of the Irish.
During that 6-0 run, West Virginia looked as slow and as impatient as the team that lost to Delaware State in December. At the same time, however, the Mountaineers did find a weakness in the Irish that helped to pay big dividends later on: Notre Dame is a very poor team from the free throw line. That's not to say that WVU sent them to the line much. Sherell Sowho was in the most foul trouble at that point for WVU, with two, whereas Michelle Carter and Latitia Williams, the two most foul-prone (and most important inside) players, combined for one. The lack of fouls gave WVU the depth inside it would need later on, and the fouls WVU did commit didn't sting as the Irish couldn't cash in on them.
Back to the game. After the 6-0 run, Yolanda Paige made a quick move to score a bucket and cut the lead to 10-6. The move awoke the crowd at the Coliseum, and sparked what really could only be described as an explosion: WVU went on a 24-0 run over the next ten minutes to take a 28-10 lead with 4:59 to go in the half.
Paige went absolutely wild, scoring eight points and dishing five assists during the run. Meg Bulger scored her five points in that stretch as well, nailing a three at the beginning which really is probably what shifted the momentum and got the adrenaline pumping for her team. The lead being opened up as it was helped West Virginia in the long run as well - Coach Carey got the opportunity to rest Carter and Williams for good stretches while Kate Glusko provided solid minutes, keeping the post fresh and, perhaps more importantly, carrying only one foul at halftime.
The Irish broke the run with a basket by LaVere to make the game 28-12, and a three by Megan Flecky cut the score to 30-15 with 4:05 to go. Batteast got back on the board to make it 30-17 with 2:20 to go, but the Mountaineers kept their poise and found their intensity again, closing the half with a 6-0 run to make the score 36-17.
The game certainly was not over at the half. WVU has had big leads evaporate quickly many times this season - a 16-0 lead over Pitt turning into a Pitt lead over a ten minute stretch two weeks ago immediately comes to mind.
The opening of the second half brought that drama back today - all of WVU's intensity was seemingly killed by having to spend 15 minutes in the locker room. Batteast did her best to take the game over, scoring seven points during an 18-5 run over the first nine minutes to close the score to 41-35. But, much like the first half, it was just a matter of time before WVU would get the blood pumping again. Kate Bulger came alive and scored seven straight points to extend the lead back to 13 at 50-37. The lead pretty much stayed sustained at 13 throughout the rest of the game as the Mountaineers brought home the 64-51 win.
It was truly a team effort for West Virginia. Kate Bulger appropriately led the Mountaineers with 20 points on 8-22 shooting, including 2 of 10 from three point range. Kate also grabbed six rebounds. Yolanda Paige was big in the big run, and she ended the game with 14 points on 6-13 shooting, and dished out six assists. Janell Dunlap, one of only two Mountaineers in any sort of foul trouble with three, was the only other WVU player in double digits, with ten points.
The rest of the scoring sheet was pretty balanced, with Michelle Carter scoring seven and grabbing five rebounds, but able to stay aggressive on defense throughout the game with fresh legs and only two fouls. Sowho and Williams each had four points, and Williams grabbed a team-high eight rebounds, again with fresh legs and only two fouls.
Notre Dame's Jacqueline Batteast led all scorers with 22 points.
I can't say much else about this game - it's something I've been waiting for all of these years, having been at the first game in 1996 but taking an unfortunate early exit (another story altogether).
Nonetheless, the Mountaineers now know they are truly capable of playing with (and beating) some of the traditional power brokers of the conference, and the psychology of that alone should be worth something through the rest of the season. The key may be avoiding a letdown this coming Wednesday in Charleston against the little green coeds of Marshall.
West Virginia advances to 11-5, 3-2 in Big East play. Notre Dame falls to 9-7, 2-2 in conference.