Women Miss Chance to Climb

The West Virginia women's basketball team blew one of its best chances at crawling out of the cellar of the Big East conference and are now on the outside looking in at the upcoming conference tournament after surrendering a 26-23 halftime lead and eventually losing to the host Pitt Panthers, 67-61 in Pittsburgh Wednesday evening.

West Virginia, coming off of a 100-84 victory over conference contender Miami on Saturday, seemingly reverted back to playing to the ability of its opponent, a scene that has become rather typical of this Big East season.

The game started off with an 8-0 run by Pittsburgh, two points each being scored by four of their starting five. Sherell Sowho scored the first bucket for the Mountaineers with 14:31 to go in the half to make the score 8-2. At that point, West Virginia began to find its rhythm and chipped away at the Panther lead.

The score was closed to 11-6 with 11:19 to go on baskets by Yolanda Paige and Liz Holbrook, then Janell Dunlap and Michelle Carter go into the act to close it to 13-10 with 7:46 left. At that point, Kate Bulger came alive and scored six in the next four minutes to put her team up 19-18. The lead was traded a couple of times at that point as Eartha White became a force inside, scoring six points to give the Mountaineers a three point lead (and seemingly the game momentum) heading into the locker room.

It's important to note at this point that while the Mountaineers shot poorly in the first half (35% to Pitt's 40%), they kept turnovers close at 11-10 and dominated the boards by a 20-12 margin. Even more outstanding was the fact that West Virginia held Pittsburgh's bench scoreless and had three Panther starters with two fouls each. I say this because while some of it got a little better in the second half, the defense didn't show up and a few of these critical numbers suddenly got agonizingly worse.

The Mountaineers opened the second half with a bucket by Latitia Williams to take their largest lead of the game at 28-23. Pittsburgh, sparked by reserves Haley Harguth and Jessica Allen, neither of whom even had a shot in the first half, then took advantage of five WVU turnovers and went on a 16-4 run over the next six minutes to take a 39-32 lead. Harguth nailed a pair of threes in that stretch and Allen hit one.

Sherell Sowho tried to respond with a pair of baskets of her own but each time she was matched by Allen, with the score going to 43-36 before a WVU timeout. Each time the Mountaineers managed to close the score within three or four, Pittsburgh had a quick, and seemingly deadly, response. The defense was apparently still in the locker room as the Panthers got one second chance shot after another.

Pitt's second half turnaround was the result of the Mountaineers' poor offensive execution paired with the lack of defense - the 20-12 rebounding margin closed to 39-35 at the final, with Pitt grabbing 16 offensive rebounds. Worse yet, West Virginia finished the game with 19 turnovers to Pitt's 14, and the Panthers made their way to the charity stripe 12 more times, hitting nine more than WVU. But the biggest difference was the bench scoring - Haley Harguth scored six points in the half on a pair of three pointers, and Jessica Allen finished the game with 10. They were the only two reserves for Pitt to score, and all of their points came in the second half.

When all was said and done, Sherell Sowho wound up leading the Mountaineers in scoring with 14 points on 6-14 shooting, 2-8 from beyond the arc. Yolanda Paige finished the game with 13 on 6-9 shooting, dishing out four assists. Michelle Carter was the only other Mountaineer in double figures, scoring 11 points and grabbing seven rebounds.

Kate Bulger had nine on a slow night, six of those coming in the first half on 3-13 shooting, 2-8 from three point range. Eartha White had eight points, all of those coming in the first half after seeing very limited action in the second, and grabbed a team-high nine rebounds. Latitia Williams, Liz Holbrook, and Janell Dunlap had two each.

Pittsburgh was led by Laine Selwyn, who scored 22 points on 6-11 shooting, 2-3 from beyond the arc and 8-10 from the line.

West Virginia falls to 13-10, 2-10 and a tie with St. John's for last place in the Big East conference standings. The Mountaineers face the Red Storm in a key match Saturday to get out of the conference basement and keep hopes alive to not be one of the two teams left out of Jersey in March, but that fight was made this much more difficult this evening as Pitt was the other conference "cellar dweller," coming out tonight with a 3-9 conference record, 11-12 overall.

Thus, the Jekyll and Hyde Mountaineer saga continues. The team that went undefeated out of conference and took teams like Notre Dame (twice), Boston College, and Virginia Tech to the wire (not to mention blowing away the Hurricanes), turned its face again and looked very much like the team that dropped games to the likes of Seton Hall, Providence, and Georgetown, this time losing to one of this week's "worst ten" as rated by womenscollegehoops.com.

As confident as I am that the Mountaineers are capable of winning three of their last four (forget UConn), Coach Carey is going to have to sketch up something on the drawing board that I'm not sure can be cured in a few days - the Mountaineers have to absolutely stop playing to the ability of the opposition and play their own game. My fingers are crossed, the old, ragged "WV" hat is still on my head, and I'm holding my breath - the ride continues.

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