Women Remain Alive In Tournament Race

The West Virginia women's basketball team kept its hopes for a Big East tournament bid alive and stayed out of the conference cellar by defeating the visiting Red Storm of St. John's, 68-59 in the WVU Coliseum.

Although the ingredients may have been right for the makings of an upset entering the game, with the Mountaineers having lost to a much less-talented Pittsburgh team on Wednesday and the subsequent suspension of #2 scorer Sherell Sowho, the Red Storm were never really a serious threat in the game as they were relegated to sole possession of the conference basement by the Mountaineers.

Michelle Carter took the opening tip and scored for West Virginia, but it looked like St. John's might be a little pesky when they responded on the other end with a basket by their own center, Patrycja Gulak (try spelling that one consistently) to make the score 2-2.

Those thoughts were eliminated pretty quickly when Kate Bulger hit one of two free throws and then drained a three after the missed free throw to show she had rebounded from the tough game at Pitt. That ignited a 14-0 WVU run that would put the Mountaineers up 16-2 with 11:30 remaining.

This run really set the tempo for the game - it was a game of runs, with the Red Storm responding with a 7-0 run of their own to close the score to 16-9 with 8:00 left in the half. Well, the Mountaineers countered with a 7-0 run of their own to stretch it back to 16 at 25-9, and then the Red Storm came back 8-0 to make it 25-17. Bulger had her own 5-0 run, then Gulak hit a jumper as the half expired to put the score at 30-19.

With Sowho, West Virginia's second-leading scorer at 12 points per game out of the lineup, Coach Mike Carey knew it would be absolutely critical for more than one player on his team to step up and take the challenge, even against the worst team in the conference. He got what he needed - Bulger scored 15 in the first half, 12 of those points from beyond the arc, and Janell Dunlap fit into her new-found starting role very well.

Dunlap had six points in the first half and was invaluable on the defensive end, helping Paige and Bulger keep St. John's starting three guards to 2-7 shooting from the field for six points, all of those coming from leading scorer Shemika Stevens. Eartha White, back in the starting lineup after good performances against Miami and Pitt, also stepped up in the half, scoring six and pulling down three boards against the smaller Johnnies.

The first six minutes of the second half saw the first half run trend broken somewhat, and the West Virginia defense actually started to fizzle a bit. The Mountaineers and Red Storm exchanged baskets save for a small 6-0 WVU run that made the score 44-28 with 14:00 left in the game. The trading continued to the 10:00 mark, with the margin still at 15. The Mountaineers managed to pull their big lead out at 18, 58-40 with about 7:00 left, but St. John's would not give up as Shemika Stevens came on fire to pour in 16 second half points (she averages 12 per game). WVU's lead hovered around ten points after the Red Storm's final run, and the Mountaineers cruised home for the victory.

West Virginia was led by Kate Bulger, who scored 15 in the first half on her way to 19 for the game. Bulger was 7-18 from the field, 4-7 from three-point range and pulled down seven rebounds. With the 19, Kate moves into 14th place on WVU's all-time scoring list with 1,174 points, ahead of J.D. Drummonds with 1,160 and just behind Rebecca Burbridge with 1,179.

Bulger was followed closely by a career-high 15 points for Eartha White, on her official senior day at the Coliseum (though one home game remains). Eartha shot 5-7 from the field, got 5-7 from the line and tied Grace Carson, also on her senior day, for a team-high eight rebounds. I can't really say what's ignited the fire in Eartha and Grace in the past few games, but whatever it may be, I hope it continues as their careers wind to a close - they have been invaluable in this past week's stretch.

Janell Dunlap stepped up to the challenge, scoring 13 on 4-9 shooting, drawing a bunch of fouls in the first half to make things even more complicated for St. John's and connecting on 5-7 of her free throws. WVU got exactly the output needed from Janell to fill in those missing 12 from Sowho, and the past two weeks show she may be ready to step into a bigger role for this Mountaineer team. Michelle Carter again had a slow first half but rebounded in the second to score 11. Yolanda Paige had eight points and five assists, and Ashley Dunn scored two. For the record, Coach Carey did get to clear the bench for the first time in the conference season, with Kristen Kilgore and Tehana Geist coming in with less than a minute to go.

St. John's was led by Shemika Stevens, who came alive in the second half for a game-high 22 points on 8-14 shooting. Patrycja Gulak was the only other red jersey to score in double figures with 11.

This was not a remarkable game by any stretch of the imagination, but it was nonetheless important for West Virginia. First and foremost, the Mountaineers are still alive for a bid to the Big East tournament, tying Pitt and (pending their outcome today) Providence with 3 league wins. Of course, Pitt owns the tiebreaker with WVU but the Mountaineers could get in by holding the tie with the Lady Friars. Still, the Mountaineers have a very winnable game at home against Syracuse on Wednesday, which could change the complexion of the entire situation and make things a little safer.

Secondly, WVU has secured their second straight winning regular season, the first time they've done that since the early 1990's, which guarantees them at least a .500 season if they would lose the rest of their games and a first round contest in the Big East tournament. While the record is a disappointment, it's still not bad for a team that hasn't had a winning record since 1996-97. The Mountaineers advance their record to 14-10, 3-10 in conference, while St. John's falls to 8-17, 2-12.

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