In two previous games this season against top five teams, West Virginia (17-3, 6-1) had come nowhere close to competing, let alone pulling the upset. Tuesday night, with a shorthanded lineup, the Mountaineers not only competed, but beat No. 4/5 Rutgers (17-3, 6-1) by a final of 63-54.
Leading scorer Olayinka Sanni entered the second half with just one personal foul. In the first 2:39 of the final frame, Sanni picked up three more personals, and was banished to the bench. The Mountaineers trailed by nine at that point, and with Sanni on the bench and second leading scorer Meg Bulger not dressing for the second straight game due to an injured left knee, one was left to wonder if the Scarlet Knights were about to put the game away with a run.
On the contrary, it was the Mountaineers who went running – and then some. West Virginia outscored the Scarlet Knights to the tune of 19-3 over the next seven minutes, blowing the game wide open and sending the stellar crowd of 3,093 into a frenzy.
With both leading scorers on the bench, senior guard LaQuita Owens found her shooting stroke from all over, finishing with a game-high 23 points to lead her team to its biggest win of the season. Perhaps none of Owens' points were bigger than the three-pointer she hit against an expiring shot clock off an inbounds play in front of the Mountaineer bench. That shot pushed West Virginia's lead back to eight points, and sent Rutgers – a national finalist last season – into panic mode over the final two minutes.
Sparkle Davis was the other Mountaineer player in double-figures with 14 points. Davis scored West Virginia's first seven points of the game to keep the hosts competitive as Rutgers built a lead as big as seven points in the first half.
As Mountaineer head coach Mike Carey predicted while talking about the game on Monday afternoon, the defense of Rutgers allowed the Scarlet Knights to jump out on his team early. West Virginia struggled from the field in the first half. Despite taking 29 shots to Rutgers' 19, the Mountaineers managed just nine makes from the floor. The dismal shooting extended to three-point land, with the Mountaineers making just two of 11 attempts from downtown. Rutgers led 28-22 at the break.
In the second half, the same shots West Virginia had missed in the first half began to fall. Of the 19 points during the aforementioned run, only six came from inside the paint. The rest came on a combination of jump shots from both inside and outside the arc. Once WVU took the lead with 12:09 to play, it would never trail again.
On the defensive end of the court, the Mountaineers were just as relentless, forcing 19 Rutgers turnovers with led to 22 points for WVU. Sanni and freshman guard Liz Repella totaled three steals each, and the latter also adding eight points in 23 minutes of play.
Every time Rutgers attempted to make a run, the Mountaineers countered by hitting a big shot or making a crucial stop.
"I told them at the last timeout, under four minutes, that all we had to do was win one more four minute period to win the game," Carey said. "We showed a lot of heart, a lot of discipline and did the things we needed to do to win the basketball game."
A pair of free throws by Ashley Powell with 44 seconds remaining iced the outcome for West Virginia as fans of all ages prepared to rush the court in celebration following the win.
"It was a great atmosphere," Carey said. "That really helped us going down the stretch. It really did."
The nine-point margin of defeat was the largest for Rutgers since dropping a 59-46 decision to Tennessee in last season's national title game. West Virginia's 63 points were the most given up by the Scarlet Knights this season.
"West Virginia played well," said longtime RU coach C. Vivian Stringer. "I thought that LaQuita Owens was all that."
On this night, she certainly was, and it's a good thing too what with Sanni and Bulger both watching from the bench. As a result, the Mountaineers pulled off their biggest win of the season.