And what a season it has been. What started out with struggles in December with player suspensions, defections, and other off court distractions, turned into success in January, when the Mountaineers found a defensive game but struggled with offensive spurts and slumps. Late January saw the offense slump and the defense step up big, and early February brought with it balance. But, beginning on Valentine's Day, it turned into offense, but no defense, for the Mountaineers. This evening, the same rang true, but the offense put together arguably its best game of the season to down the Scarlet Knights.
The Mountaineers started out the first half by matching the Scarlet Knights basket for basket in the first 5:30 - both teams shot a perfect five for five to knot the score at 10. WVU saw its first run with a basket by Janell Dunlap and a three by Kate Bulger for a 15-10 lead. The lead expanded to seven at 22-15 on a basket by Michelle Carter, and the game remained in the seven point neighborhood until the 7:45 mark.
At that point, unheralded Rutgers forward Michelle Campbell came alive and transformed into an All-American for a night. Campbell scored four straight and nine of Rutgers' final 14 points to tie the game at 36 at halftime. Going into tonight's game, Campbell's career high score came against basement-dweller St. John's, when she totalled a respectable 16 points. In the first half of this game, she shot 8-9 from the field for 17 points. Perhaps most importantly, Campbell's 17 more than made up for a five point, 2-5 shooting performance from media favorite Cappie Poindexter, the #2 scorer in the Big East conference.
The second half began much like the first ended, with both teams playing to a stalemate. WVU did manage to get four Rutgers players, including Campbell and Poindexter, in foul trouble early. But, Rutgers continued to pound the ball inside to Campbell and reserve Rebecca Richman to battle out to a 55-50 lead with 12:512 left.
WVU battled back to within two, but then reserve Nikki Jett hit a three-pointer to put the Knights back up 61-56. It's important to note that, at this point, Rutgers had committed nine team fouls for the half (with ten minutes remaining). WVU struggled from the line all night, however, and failed to take advantage of their opportunities. Rutgers would not commit another foul until the 2:52 mark, making the Mountaineer comeback even more difficult.
WVU went down by as much as six at 65-59 with 7:25 remaining, but the Mountaineers would not be denied. Michelle Carter closed the game to 67-65 with four straight points, and then Sherell Sowho opened up a three-point barrage by the Mountaineers that would put the game in their favor for the rest of the night. Sowho's three made the score 68-67, then Kate Bulger followed suit to make it 71-67. Bulger then capped the night and sealed the victory with a three at the 43 second mark to make the score 77-71. Free throws by Yolanda Paige made the final 80-71.
What a night it was for the Mountaineer seniors. Kate Bulger capped off her Coliseum career with 22 points on 8-14 shooting, 5-11 from beyond the arc. Kate continued to inch her way up towards some more records this evening, closing in on Donna Abbott for fourth place on WVU's all-time scoring list with 1,649 points, just seven behind Abbott. Also, with at least three games left, Bulger has 149 career three-point field goals, just eight short of the all-time Big East conference record. This was also her 29th career 20+ point effort.
While Kate was by all means great, the show was stolen by fellow senior Janell Dunlap. Dunlap, normally known for her defense, scored a career-high 15 points on 6-8 shooting. Dunlap was the offensive spark that kept WVU alive early in the second half, scoring eight in the first four minutes of the game. Michelle Carter also joined the party, shooting a perfect 5-5 from the field for 12 points and grabbing five rebounds in just 19 minutes of play before fouling out.
Yolanda Paige scored 13 points and dished out her average eight assists, and Meg Bulger rounded out the double-figure scorers with 11. Sherell Sowho added in five, and Latitia Williams scored a crucial two in the final three minutes to put WVU up 74-69.
Michelle Campbell ended the game as Rutgers' leading scorer with 23 points on 11-13 shooting. Poindexter was limited to 13 on 3-15 shooting.
This evening, the WVU women's basketball team tied the 1996-97 squad with 19 wins in the season. However, the '96-97 squad also lost 12 games, something that cannot happen to this team now, and it took a Big East tournament win to secure 19. For this reason, I dub this the best season since 1991.
Most importantly, WVU remains, at least for the time being, in a three-way tie for third in the conference, and, with tiebreakers now against Rutgers and Virginia Tech, will not finish any lower than sixth. A win against power team Miami Saturday evening would move the Mountaineers up a notch to fifth. Undoubtedly, WVU will be playing somewhere in March, and the win this evening keeps them floating on an NCAA bubble. A win against Miami on Saturday would make it difficult to keep the Mountaineers out.
Mike Carey for (at least) conference Coach of the Year. Meg Bulger for conference rookie of the year. Yolanda Paige for National Point Guard of the Year. Learn it, love it, live it.