Before the game, West Virginia was tied with Pittsburgh and Providence for the last spot for a bid to the conference tournament with three wins apiece. The problem with that, however, was that the Panthers and the Lady Friars each held tiebreakers against the Mountaineers. This, along with the fact that this evening's match would be the last home contest of the year before heading out on the road against perennial powers Virginia Tech and Connecticut, meant that the Mountaineers would almost have to win this game to get into the tournament.
Well, West Virginia passed their test in exciting fashion. It was clear early on that Kate Bulger was going to be a major factor, thrashing Maranna Freeman's trademark zone defense with three straight field goals to give the Mountaineers their first eight points in the opening three minutes, resulting in an 8-4 lead. The hot-shooting Orangewomen were quick to respond with a three by Rochelle Coleman and a field goal by April Jean to take a one point lead. Michelle Carter became the first "other" Mountaineer to score, then Bulger poured in another three to bring the score back to a 13-9 advantage.
Syracuse was not to be denied on offense in the first half. The Mountaineers and Orangewomen traded the lead back and forth, with the biggest lead by any team being four, but the real difference in that was the shooting by the Orange. They shot an unbelievable 15-24 from the field for the half (63%), compared to WVU's 15-33 for 45%. The worst individual percentage was 50% for Coleman, who shot 3-6 for seven points. On the other hand, Bulger was West Virginia for the half. Kate lit up the zone for 21 points on 9-17 shooting, 3-6 from beyond the arc and was the deciding factor in giving her team a 35-34 halftime lead.
In the second half, the Mountaineers found a little bit better defense and some other players started to show up. Early on, Bulger scored two straight field goals and Eartha White came alive for five to pull the lead out to 44-38. The Mountaineer run finished up at 9-1 with Michelle Carter and Yolanda Paige getting into the act, giving WVU a 48-39 lead with about 15 minutes to go. That lead was maintained for the next five minutes, until Coleman and Julie McBride hit back-to-back three pointers to close the gap to 53-50. White responded, along with Latitia Williams to pull the lead back out to 57-50 with nine minutes remaining.
At that nine minute mark, it looked like the wheels started to come off of the Mountaineer wagon. Coach Mike Carey was whistled for a technical foul. After several apparently-blown calls, the officiating count for fouls and turnovers tilted heavily in favor of the Orangewomen and Carey seemingly had seen enough.
The foul put McBride on the line, and she hit both. On the ensuing possession, McBride was fouled again and she hit two more to close the score to 57-54. A quick turnover by the Mountaineers after an official timeout gave the ball to the Orangewomen, and the score was closed to 57-56 on a score by Jean. Bulger drained her third three of the game to give WVU some breathing room at 60-56, but Syracuse responded with a 5-0 run to take the lead at 61-60 with two minutes remaining.
WVU was not able to do anything over the next minute. With one minute to go, Michelle Carter was fouled and put on the line for a one-and-one opportunity. Carter missed the first shot, but the Mountaineers got a break - Julie McBride was called for a lane violation, cheering and clapping while Carter was at the line. Michelle responded by hitting both shots for the 62-61 lead. On the other end of the court, Shannon Perry, who had gotten her fourth foul with nine minutes left in the game, hit her second straight field goal to grab the lead back at 63-62 with 21 seconds to go.
With only one possession apparently left, the Mountaineers missed a pair of shots and Perry got the ball back. A desperation foul put Perry on the line, where she had gone 1-5 for the night. Perry hit one of two for the 64-62 lead. With no time to pass, Yolanda Paige put up a shot and missed on the very final Mountaineer possession.
But just when it looked like the game was over, Eartha White was there again for the rebound, capping off her second half explosion with a follow-up bucket with 0.1 seconds remaining to tie the score at 64 and force overtime.
What a second half - Bulger was held to seven points, but Eartha White continued her hot streak of the past few games, coming back from no points and no rebounds in the first half, paired with four personal fouls, to score 11 points and grab nine rebounds. The rest of the team made its contributions, with four points here and three there. But most of all, the defense came alive, forcing the Orangewomen's shooting percentage down to 39%, 9-21 from the field.
Overtime just made one wish this game would never end. White, Carter, and Paige scored for the Mountaineers in response to Perry and McBride to take a 69-68 lead with 1:50 remaining. Then, Rochelle Coleman hit a three after being held to only one basket in the second half to give Syracuse a 71-69 lead.
On the next Mountaineer possession, April Jean got Syracuse their own technical foul, putting Bulger on the line for two. Kate hit both to tie the score, then drained a three on the ensuing possession to give WVU a 74-71 lead with 52 seconds left. Rochelle Coleman came right back with a three on a followup shot attempt with 24 seconds remaining. After a Syracuse timeout, the objective was clear: get the ball to Kate. She stepped up to the challenge, draining her sixth three-pointer of the game with 2 seconds remaining and clinching the 77-74 victory.
Like I had said after the St. John's victory last Saturday, West Virginia was going to need somebody to step up and fill in the shoes of the indefinitely-suspended Sherell Sowho. Kate Bulger was definitely "it" the season, as she scored enough to make up for her average as well as Sherell's: a career-high and Coliseum-record 36 points (breaking the previous record of 35 by Cathy Parson against Glenville on December 12, 1981 and Christie Lambert against Temple on January 28, 1995).
Bulger hit 14-28 shots from the field, including 6-11 from beyond the arc. The 14 field goals tied the Coliseum-record by Rosemary Kosiorek against Pittsburgh on December 12, 1991, and the 28 attempts tie Cathy Parson's Mountaineer record against Rutgers on February 13, 1982. Further, Bulger's 36 were the most by a Mountaineer since Christie Lambert set a team record 38 against Providence on January 21, 1998.
Bulger's point total vaulted her past Rebecca Burbridge and Lori Wilson into sole possessioin of 12th place on WVU's all-time scoring list with 1,210 points. Finally, Bulger moved into sole possession of seventh place on the all-time 20+ point game list, with 20.
Eartha White has really come alive and is a major reason that West Virginia has won three of its last four. White scored 12 points on perfect 5-5 shooting, 2-4 from the line and she completed the double-double with 11 rebounds, all of this coming after halftime. Michelle Carter also scored a double-double after a slow start, scoring 10 on 4-11 shooting and pulling down a team-high 13 rebounds. Yolanda Paige had an "off" night, scoring eight on 4-16 shooting, but she dished out 10 assists. Ashley Dunn had a career evening, hitting two three-pointers for six points on 2-6 shooting. Latitia Williams rounded out the Mountaineer scorers with five. West Virginia out-rebounded the Orangewomen 43-33.
Syracuse was led by Rochelle Coleman and Julie McBride, each with 19 points. Shannon Perry scored 14 and grabbed 13 rebounds.
West Virginia, now 15-10 and 4-10 in conference play, has secured its first winning season since going 19-12 in 1996-97. The Mountaineers would have to win two more to match last year's conference win total, and it looks like an uphill battle with the Hokies and Huskies coming up, but don't count this Mountaineer team out. They may still have a surprise or two left for the season, and, with nothing to lose, the madness may just be beginning.