Well, the Mountaineers cleared the hurdle, but not without some major challenges along the way. The Bison jumped on the Mountaineers early and refused to give up. Creamer and Kristin Valdner scored the first two baskets of the game, giving Bucknell a 4-0 edge. Kate Bulger screamed back, scoring the first seven for West Virginia for a 7-6 edge.
But, as key as Bulger was, the real turning point in the first half for West Virginia came at 15:00 - that's when Liz Holbrook, a sophomore transfer from Clemson University, checked into her first game in a Mountaineer uniform. Holbrook took control of the inside for West Virginia, scoring nine points on 4-7 shooting and pulling down seven rebounds. Her size inside was too much for the Bison to handle, and Bulger's hot hand outside (17 points for the half) propelled the Mountaineers to a 34-26 lead near the 2:00 mark. Bucknell would come back on a quick run to make the halftime score 34-30.
A quick run for Bucknell was extended into the second half, as they scored the first eight points of the half to take a 38-34 lead before a WVU timeout at 17:28. After going silent in the first half, Yolanda Paige decided it was her turn to play, scoring the first seven for the Mountaineers in the second half and closing the Bison lead to 42-41.
The Mountaineers struggled here, not able to key anybody on offense other than Paige. Both teams struggled defensively as the lead went back and forth. Holbrook went cold, turning the ball over twice, and Bulger was not finding the early openings she had enjoyed in the first half.
Finally, Michelle Carter came alive to tie the score at 46, and her ability to fill in the post allowed the outsides to follow. Sherell Sowho, Bulger, Paige, and even Janell Dunlap got into the act, as the Mountaineers took the lead for good at 7:50 to go on a Paige score to make it 55-53. The Bison went cold, and only by the grace of turnovers and the exceptional talent of Creamer were they able to keep it close, as West Virginia sealed the 77-72 victory.
What can I say? This is the first glimpse I've had of the team this year and I'm very impressed. The main key, I think, to this game was West Virginia's post play, so much improved from last year. Holbrook showed immediate impact in the first half, playing extremely physically, and, when she went cold, Carter was right there to pick up for her in the second half - something that did not happen last year. The depth was too much for Bucknell, who played only six players, versus the ten who saw time for West Virginia.
Again, the guards were strong - Kate Bulger had an exceptional game, shooting 11-18 from the field, including 4-7 from beyond the arc for 28 points. Though starting slow, Yolanda Paige finished the game with 17 points on 7-13 shooting, with six assists and NO turnovers. Even Sowho, whose play has been hot vs. cold, was able to finish the game with five points though being completely contained for most of the game.
But, as I said above, the winner was in WVU's depth, and the post. Bulger and Paige were given (albeit short) cances to breathe, with Ashley Dunn, Latitia Williams, and Janell Dunlap able to provide relief. Most importantly, we had three post players! Eartha White was shut down the entire game, scoring one point in the second half. But, that doesn't sting so much when you see that Liz Holbrook scored nine, all in the first half, and Carter scored 12, eight in the second half, with nine rebounds. What a difference.
Let's give credit where credit is due - Bucknell is the defending champion of their conference, and they showed why they'll be my favorite to win it all again this season. They were able to run with a improving mid-tier Big East conference team. They were able to force 19 Mountaineer turnovers, which allowed them to shoot the ball ten more times (29-66 to WVU's 30-56). They held the rebounding margin against a much larger, more athletic team to 37-34. And, their All-American performer rebounded from a sloppy first half to put on a big time performance. Molly Creamer finished the game with 30 points on 11-26 shooting, her 37th career game with 30+ points. She led three Bucknell double-figure scorers who also included Desire Almind with 13 and Kristin Valdner with a career-high 12.
West Virginia, now 2-0, takes a brief break for the Thanksgiving holiday before hosting a holiday tournament beginning against Akron on Friday. As I said before, this may be the main hurdle, so the "experts" say, to a 10-0 start, but this game demonstrated how dicey that can be. One game at a time, things will fall as they will and West Virginia will hopefully look back in a month and see this as the start to a tremendous season. For the record, Bucknell falls to 0-3.