WVU Women Prep For Aussie Tour

West Virginia – with Meg Bulger at least able to walkabout – opened practice today for its two-week Australian tour. The idea: Fuse as a team in all aspects and morph the late-season runs into an all-season surge.

While Bulger won't play (she has been cleared by team doctors and noted she was "about 90 percent" in her left knee), head coach Mike Carey will take the senior and 10 other players on the five-game sprint through Sydney, Cairns, located in New South Wales and Queensland, respectively. Bulger is being held out until the start of preseason practice as an extra precaution. The all-Big East player and Associated Press honorable mention All-American, who tore the ACL in her left knee against St. John's on Jan. 29, 2006 and missed the final 13 games last year, again tore the same ACL while doing routine running in August of 2007 and missed all of last season.

The knee, being kept in a brace while Bulger practices, has responded well and should be near 100 percent for the regular season opener as West Virginia tries to gain a second consecutive NCAA berth for the first time in school history.

The prelude to that is the Australian tour from August 5-17. Besides the five games, WVU will be allotted 10 practices, per NCAA rules, giving it an earlier start than ever before and hopefully, according to players, leading to additional non-conference and Big East success. The Mountaineers went 21-11 last season, 13-1 at home and advanced to the NCAA second round before losing to No. 2 seed LSU 49-43 after leading by as many as eight points. The then-No. 10 Tigers had defeated West Virginia 64-25 in the opening game of 2006-07.

"It has been exciting," senior guard LaQuita Owens said of readying for the foreign tour. "Once you have been in the NCAA tournament, you want to go back. It wasn't easy getting there. There are some really tough teams out there, so we have been working really hard to get back to the NCAA tournament. This team is real close. We have come together more, and are doing way better than in the previous years I was here."

The Mountaineers return all five starters: Owens, senior center Yinka Sanni, senior forward Chakia Cole, junior guard Sparkle Davis, and junior guard Ashley Powell. That's in addition to Bulger, who has started for three seasons, and four other players with major minutes. It is Carey's most veteran team in his seven seasons as WVU continues to rise nationally after postseason appearances in three of the past four years and un expected success in the Big East tournaments, including a run to the finals as the No. 12 seed in 2006.

"Since I have been here, we have kicked in the end," Cole said. "We have had our best runs at the end (of the season). Hopefully we can get that started earlier this year. It will let everybody know where they stand, instead of trying to figure that out when school starts. Everyone will know where they belong in the system before the second or even third game. It will come down to everybody believing that we can (advance farther in the NCAAs). It's having the heart to go out and do it."

Cole has traveled to France, Germany and Australia, but has never played overseas or against a more European style, where teams rely more on the outside shot and less on points in the paint, as is the American approach. Her last trip to the southern hemisphere came when her and a friend went to California, then to Fiji and Australia to sightsee.

"I had tourist stamped on my forehead," Cole said. "I just walked around. I really love accents. That's my thing. So I would just ask people random questions to hear them talk. I love traveling, being outside of America to see what is out there. Since we are going to be there two and a half weeks (with no working cell phones), it will be everybody hanging out together and knowing each other outside of basketball."

Like the vast majority of the roster, Owens has never been out of the United States. She, like the rest of the team, will visit the noted Sydney Opera House and Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

"I heard it's a beautiful country," said the Charlotte native. "To have the experience is an honor. This helps to get us in shape before the year, because we are starting so early. Ever since the season ended, since the NCAA tournament, I have been in the gym running, shooting. (Carey) stressed to us to be in shape. I will come out and work hard. Whatever happens, happens, but I want to win."

The rest of the travel roster includes: senior guard Kendra Goodley, senior guard Lateefah Joye, junior forward Melanie Small, redshirt freshman guard Kelly Smith and senior center Ranisha White. Mountaineer newcomers, be they Division I transfers, junior college transfers or freshmen, are not permitted to travel due to NCAA regulations.

The WVU schedule: Aug. 8 vs. New South Wales; Aug. 10 vs. an ABA team TBD; Aug. 13 vs. Cairns, Aug. 14 and 15 vs. Townsville.

Note: Sanni was not at the first session of drills. She will report to practice Tuesday.

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