The game broke what had been a month and a half long offensive slump for West Virginia, which had relied on speed and shooting prowess to overwhelm its non-conference foes and start the season at a perfect 10-0. The Mountaineers looked like they would continue that streak into the conference season before a second half collapse against Notre Dame began a downward spiral that would see them go 2-9 into today's game. Whatever finally relit their fire, they were back in full force today.
The game began simlarly of the rest of the conference games this season. Miami took a 2-0 lead on an easy jumper by Chanivia Broussard. West Virginia responded with two by Sherell Sowho, and then went on a 7-2 run to take a 9-4 lead on a three by Sowho. After the first official timeout, Miami went on a run of their own, grabbing a 12-11 lead and going to stretch it to 24-17 in the next eight minutes.
At about that point, the atypical began to happen. Down the stretch of the final seven minutes of the half, not only did the Mountaineers let the seven point margin be the largest they would be down by for the game, but they would keep on scoring. Both teams exploded in that last seven minutes, with the Mountaineers out-scoring the Hurricanes by a margin of 29-18, mostly on the backs of Sowho and Kate Bulger but also with some big contributions off the bench, to take a 46-42 lead at the half.
Truly the first real turning point of the game, perhaps the key turning point of the game, came with around 3:30 left to go in the half. Miami's Megan Saake, who averages nine points per game, had exploded against Kate Bulger to shoot 6-6 from the field for 14 points. At that point, Mike Carey switched defenders on Saake, placing Sherell Sowho against her, and it worked - Saake was held without a shot for the rest of the half.
In addition, Carey subbed Grace Carson for a struggling Michelle Carter. Carson responded by grabbing a quick (and very key) four rebounds for the Mountaineers, three on defense and a biggie on offense that got her two points from the free throw line. That closed the score to 39-35 in the midst of a 9-1 run that gave the Mountaineers the lead at 40-39 with 1:35 left. As it turned out, Miami would only lead the game one more time, 41-40 on a pair of free throws.
The Mountaineer snowstorm continued early in the second half with a 7-2 run to extend the lead to 53-44. Miami narrowed the margin with a little run of their own to make it 55-50, but then Michelle Carter, held scoreless in the first half, came alive with the rest of the scoring machine.
Carter scored six straight, and seven of West Virginia's next nine, to sustain the lead at 64-59. A three by Bulger and a traditional three point play by Yolanda Paige extended the lead to 69-59. But, the rout was truly on with West Virginia's next possession, when freshman walk-on Ashley Dunn brought the house down with her first three-pointer of the season, capping a 10-0 run. Miami tried hard to get back in the game, taking advantage of 6-7 shooting for 12 points by Yalonda McCormick, but could never close the score again. A load of desperation fouls in the final two minutes allowed the Mountaineers to get to 100 points for the first time since defeating Robert Morris on December 7.
West Virginia, who put all of the people who got playing time on the board today, was led by Kate Bulger with 22 points on 9-16 shooting, 3-5 from three-point range. It was Bulger's 19th career 20+ point game, tying her for seventh on WVU's all-time list with Jenny Hillen and "Phi Slamma Jamma" alumnus Georgeann Wells.
Sherell Sowho scored 19, going 6-10 from the field, 4-6 from three-point range and grabbing six rebounds. Yolanda Paige rounded out the double-digit attack of the guards with 14 points on 4-8 shooting, 6-7 from the line and dishing out 14 assists, tying her own Coliseum record. Michelle Carter rounded out all Mountaineer scorers in double digits with 11 points, all in the second half, and a team-high eight rebounds.
Also contributing for WVU were Janell Dunlap, who scored nine points, seven of those on free throws. Liz Holbrook broke out of her own personal cold snap with eight on 2-3 shooting. Eartha White had three fouls in the first half but played nearly all of the second half to score eight on 4-5 shooting.
Latitia Williams started for the third straight game had four in limited action. Last, but definitely not least, were two of the major sparks for the Mountaineers today: Ashley Dunn scored three in two minutes of action, and Grace Carson scored two from the charity stripe and grabbed four boards in six minutes.
Miami was led by the Big East's leading scorer and freshman sensation Tamara James, who scored 18 on 6-14 shooting before fouling out. She was tied by hot-shot Megan Saake who had 18, with 14 of those coming in the first half as mentioned above. Also notable were Yalonda McCormick who finished with 16, and Chanavia Broussard with 14.
West Virginia shot 32-55 for the game, a whopping 58%, while the Hurricanes were held to 46% shooting, making 32-69 shots. Interestingly enough, the game was a match-up between the worst two free throw shooting teams in the conference, with Miami being the worst. I don't think that will be true from here out at WVU shot 28-34 from the stripe, good enough for 82%, and Miami shot 16-20 for 80%.
This was truly a big win for West Virginia - a high scoring game, much like the high times of the non-conference season, and against a good quality Big East opponent - the Hurricanes were 6-4 in conference play, 14-7 overall entering the game, good enough for sixth place in the league.
With two league wins, the Mountaineers edged closer not only to securing a winning season, but also making their way into the conference tournament.
I've tried to pinpoint all day what exactly happened here, and I think it may have to do with the second half against Rutgers I waxed so eloquently about Wednesday evening. It seemed that the Mountaineers, in closing the gap and avoiding the blowout against the Scarlet Knights, had somehow gotten a moral victory and their confidence back in the 15-point loss in Jersey.
Whatever the case is, it couldn't have come soon enough. The Mountaineers, now 13-9, 2-9 in conference, face a huge (and winnable) game a Pittsburgh Wednesday that could very well be the play-in game for the Big East tournament. From there, they host their final two home games of the season against St. John's and Syracuse, also winnable games, before facing tougher tasks at Virginia Tech and UConn. The road ahead won't be easy, but it's reassuring to see things may be pointed again in the right direction.