Recapping the Journey

The long, long drive back to still windy and cold Southern Maryland from Columbus (a total of 1,024 miles logged for the weekend in the Honda SUV) offered up much fatigue at the end of the road and plenty of time for reflection on what has personally been the most fun I've had since I started following the West Virginia University women's basketball program about ten years ago.

Players and coaches, as well as many friends and acquaintances, have come and gone since becoming a fan, but I have to say that I've never felt closer to a team than this one. That is, I can't say I recall a time when I felt so enthusiastic about the program, when I rode the emotional highs and lows of the wins and losses (on and off the court), or when I could truly say I could see, feel, and understand what was happening on the court, and be able to predict what was about to happen.

Or perhaps it was just all of that weather getting to me over the weekend, which in itself was full of highs and lows. Temperatures took a nosedive along the Tidal Potomac heading into Friday and they chased me all the way to my parents house in Fairmont. I thought spring had finally hit upon my arrival in Columbus, with "balmy" temperatures in the 60s and sunny skies greeting me. Returning to Fairmont, I hit a quagmire near the Pennsylvania state line on Saturday, and I departed Fairmont in snow on Sunday.

Not that you need to hear about all of that. The game itself was exciting, the atmosphere feverish, and the arena tight. Literally. The Nationwide Arena in Columbus, naturally, was hosting the first and second rounds of the NCAA men's basketball tournament. Value City Arena, the new on-campus home of the Ohio State Buckeye men's and women's basketball teams, was booked for the state high school girls basketball championships. That left old St. John Arena, the very tight, very vertical, very humid, very World War II-era field house on Woody Hayes Drive to host the first two rounds of the NCAA women's basketball tournament. Not very fan-friendly, but a great place to watch a tournament game involving the Buckeyes.

Yes, I've had my fill of the color red for a few months. The rafters may have been empty, but the lower sections of the arena were a sea of enthusiastic red Buckeyes. It was truly the best home team support I've ever personally experienced for a women's basketball game. True, I have not yet traveled to Storrs, but these fans deserve credit. They loudly cheered on a great effort by the home team, while remaining almost too polite with the visitors, and quite a few of them even stuck around for the second game of the doubleheader, naturally cheering on the underdog team from Eastern Michigan.

West Virginia played a very good game from the outside, and Ohio State played a very good game from the inside. The game was as simple as that. In the end, the inside muscle of the Buckeyes prevailed over the Mountaineer three-point prowess. WVU just could not find an answer for the OSU post, while OSU was able to better cover the WVU sharpshooters in the second half. The crowd? As loud as they were, they weren't a factor. Of the many areas WVU has really grown in this season, I'd have to rank responding to the pressure of playing in front of hostile crowds (read: Storrs) near the top of the list.

Growing up, coming of age. That really sums up this year's team. I had great expectations entering the season, what with Meg Bulger joining her sister Kate on the squad and Ramika McGee and Yelena Leuchenka bringing some much-needed depth to the WVU post. But, before the season could get started, adversity had struck in a big way.

McGee, Leuchenka, and Bulger were all hit with injury. Adding insult to injury, Latitia Williams was suspended for a violation of team rules. This left the Mountaineers with just one true post player in Michelle Carter. To their credit, the Mountaineers somehow overcame this adversity to start the season 6-1, the lone loss coming to perennial contender Southwest Missouri State.

Meg returned heading into the Delaware State game, but the problems continued to pile up for Coach Mike Carey. Ashley Dunn, the only true point guard behind Yolanda Paige, and Tehana Geist both left the team. Janell Dunlap, a defensive key and the team's top free throw shooter, was hit with off-the-court troubles. Whether it was all of those distractions or just an inability to gel at that point in the season, the Mountaineers dropped their worst contest of the season at Delaware State, and then lost at Northwestern a couple of days later.

At this point, the Mountaineers really seemed like a streak team. They would get hot for a few minutes in the first half and jump to a big lead, then sleepwalk through the rest of the game, either dropping the contest or struggling to hold on for the win. What we saw from the middle of December to the middle of January was just that: the contests with UMKC, Pitt, and St. John's were just way to close. Seton Hall escaped with a win when WVU couldn't score in the final minutes of the game. Connecticut, naturally, was never close.

Something happened after the game at St. John's, though. Whatever it was, it was the wakeup call the Mountaineers needed. WVU came out firing the following Saturday against Notre Dame and grabbed what I would say is the biggest win in the history of the program to date.

Ever since we began playing Notre Dame in 1996 I've felt that our program would finally have "turned the corner" and begun a rise out of the basement and into at least a "mid-major" status in the NCAA if we could defeat the Irish. What happened following that game certainly lends credence to the argument: WVU went on an eight-game winning streak, moving as high as second place in the Big East standings and capping the streak with a home win over ranked Virginia Tech. While the schedule got much more difficult after that, WVU did take a win from Rutgers and got another huge win over Villanova in the Big East conference tournament.

The final record of 21-11 included the third-most wins in program history and showed WVU was ready to battle with top twenty teams. The program's first Big East Conference Freshman of the Year in Meg Bulger, Kate Bulger finishing one of the greatest careers in program history, and Yolanda Paige being recognized as one of, if not the best TRUE point guard in the country, in her junior year, showed just how far the Mountianeer program has come. And finally, the sheer guts of this team - rising from early season adversity and competing with a nine-player roster (eight on scholarship), to make the NCAA tournament. What is there not to love about this team?

Yes, it was a long drive back from the heartland. But, with the memories, it was one of the best drives I've had in ages. To Kate and the rest, thanks for the memories, I wouldn't trade them for anything, especially when I know more will be coming next year.

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