Hokies Hounded

Ladies and gentlemen of the Big East conference, there's a new contender in town, and she just sent a traditional power packing.

The West Virginia women's basketball team staked its claim to one of the top spots in the conference on Tuesday, rallying from a late-second half 11-point deficit to defeat ACC-bound and 19th-ranked Virginia Tech 69-66 in Morgantown.

The win extends West Virginia's winning streak to nine games and improves the Mountaineer record to 18-5, 9-2 in Big East conference play, good enough for sole possession of second place in the conference behind the Connecticut Huskies.

This evening's game is definitely the biggest for the Mountaineers since 1992, when Kittie Blakemore's team defeated 20th-ranked Clemson 73-72 in the first round of the NCAA tournament. It could be argued that this is the biggest win in program history, considering the competitive nature of the women's game as it has developed in the past decade and the way the Mountaineer program has lurked in the basement of Division I since that great 26-4 season. Unquestionably, this is the most exciting game that I have witnessed since following the program beginning in 1994. It's doubtful that any of the 1,234 in the Coliseum this evening will argue with that point.

Virginia Tech came into this game with a 17-4 record, 6-4 in Big East conference play. The Hokies, without a doubt, are a much bigger and deeper team in the post than the Mountaineers. To boot, they boast the inside talent of all-Big East and All-America forward Ieva Kublina. The Mountaineers, while they have made strides in stepping up the defense and grabbing rebounds in recent games, did not look to match up well against the Hokies.

...And it showed. While the Mountaineers contended early, trading the lead back and forth with Tech in the first 12 minutes of the game, the Hokies were able to slow the game to their tempo and take control of the inside about 3/4 of the way into the half. That's not to say that WVU didn't make a good fight of it. Michelle Carter was very aggressive on the inside and helped to draw two early fouls on Kublina, setting her on the bench for most of the half and limiting her to four points. But Tech was able to use their inside depth to make up for the loss - Kerri Gradin scored 11 and Davina Simmons scored two. Erin Gibson scored only one, but she got to the foul line three times, putting an early bruise on WVU's depth and forcing Mike Carey to adjust his rotation. The Hokies wound up with nine offensive rebounds in the first half, all the while shooting 50% from the field. Kublina, Gardin and Simmons shot 100%, a perfect eight-for-eight from the field.

In the meantime, WVU struggled from the field, very reminiscent of the Syracuse game on Saturday. Meg Bulger was shut out. Kate Bulger scored five, and Michelle Carter seven. The slow tempo frustrated the Mountaineers - during a dry spell starting at the 8:00 mark Yolanda Paige was forced to toss up three desperation shots. Turnovers mounted, and the Hokies took a 33-25 lead into the locker room.

The second half looked to be more of the same. Tech pulled out to a 37-25 lead on field goals by Kublina and Gibson. Each time the Mountaineers closed the score under ten points, the Hokies had an answer, usually either a field goal (or free throw) by Kublina or a three point dagger from Carrie Mason. Tech pulled out to a 52-38 lead with 11:04 to go, and maintained a 55-46 lead during a free-throw packed stretch over the next three minutes. Both teams traded baskets to put Tech to a 61-50 lead with 5:54 to go, but then it happened.

WVU, after seemingly sleepwalking since Saturday, finally burst into another trademark run. Yolanda Paige hit a field goal, her first of the game, with 4:18 to go to make the score 61-53. Paige's goal turned out to be WVU's slump buster. The field goad ignited a 13-0 WVU run on the shoulders of Paige, Kate Bulger, and Sherell Sowho to give WVU a 63-61 lead. Tech tied the score at 63-63, but that was it for the defectors. WVU hit its free throws in the end and pulled out to the 69-66 victory.

The offense was definitely hot in that final six minutes, but the props should probably go to the defense. Coach Carey did something rarely seen this season: he switched his team to a full court pressure defense. The result was twofold: six Tech turnovers in the final 5:54, and and uptempo game that WVU likes to play. The Hokies didn't have much chance to even get the ball inside in the closing minutes, much less take shots on goal. The turnovers got the Mountaineers running on all cylinders for the only time in 40 minutes of play.

The 18-5 record ties the 1996-97 team for most regular season wins in the past decade. The 9-2 record assures WVU of its second winning season in Big East play, and places the Mountaineers in the driver's seat for an all-important first round bye in the Big East tournament. The win over the 19th-ranked Hokies is the first win over a ranked team since that Clemson win in 1992.

The road ahead certainly still travels uphill. West Virginia returns home to face Boston College on Saturday, a team that WVU has never defeated. But, it can be argued that Tech was the toughest opponent WVU will face until it travels to Storrs for the final regular season contest against UConn. This win may just give WVU that last shot of adrenaline it needs to come out of the final six game stretch with a .500 or better record and a trip to the NCAA tournament.

Onward and upward!

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