Ladies Close Season With Tournament Loss

After the suspension of Michelle Carter and the announcement that Liz Holbrook had quit the team heading into this weekend's Big East Conference tournament, nobody gave the West Virginia Mountaineers a chance to defeat the Virginia Tech Hokies in the opening round.

After all, the Hokies had already defeated West Virginia twice, each time by dominating the game inside the paint. And now, WVU's top two inside players were gone, not to mention a key perimeter shooter in Sherell Sowho.

Well, the Hokies did win, but it wasn't as much of a foregone conclusion as many thought. After falling behind 38-21 at halftime, the "short-handed" Mountaineers stepped up to the challenge and put up a fight that any underdog would have been proud of, closing the gap to as little as three at 51-48 with 7:42 to go before falling, 66-60.

Grace Carson got the starting nod for West Virginia in place of Michelle Carter, her first start this season, and made a very surprising immediate impact when she took the opening tip for a score and converted a free throw to make the score 3-0 on a conventional three point play. Virginia Tech quickly responded with a basket by Chrystal Starling and a conventional three by Ieva Kublina to make the score 5-3. Carson came right back with a bucket to tie the score at five going into the first official timeout.

After the timeout, WVU again took the lead 7-5, this time on a jump shot from Janell Dunlap, again starting in place of Sherell Sowho. But then, Coach Mike Carey had flashbacks of Tuesday night's game at Connecticut - Carrie Mason triggered a 16-0 Tech run over the next eight minutes that would see the Mountaineers' shooting drop to 3-17 from the field.

Yolanda Paige broke the run with a pair of free throws to make the score 23-9. West Virginia worked at that point to try to chip away at the Tech lead, but saw success only in not letting the lead grow as they went into the locker room behind 38-21.

If there was one positive thing evident at halftime, it was that Grace Carson was not ready for this to be her last game in a Mountaineer uniform. Grace stepped up, and then some, in the first half, going 3-5 from the field for seven points, tying her career-high for a single game. Carson was THE bright spot for West Virginia for most of the half, until Kate Bulger came alive late and scored eight. West Virginia shot 8-28 (29%) for the half, compared to Virginia Tech's 14-24 (59%).

The second half opened up with a few "mini-runs" by West Virginia to slowly eat away at the Hokie lead. Tech would score one basket, the Mountaineers would score two. Kate Bulger and Yolanda Paige provided most of the early scoring for the Mountaineers, combining for eight of WVU's 12 points that closed the score to 45-33 with 12:56 left in the game.

At that point, Latitia Williams began to awaken, scoring four of the next six (Paige had the other two) to close the gap under ten at 47-39 with 10:53 left. Coming out of the official timeout, Bulger drained a three to make the score 47-42. Despite Tech bringing their band and a vocal audience to the game, it became evident at this point that the crowd favored the underdog Mountaineers.

After trading free throws, Bulger had a pass deflected right back into her own hands, and she launched an off-balance three to make the score 49-46 with 9:26 to go. Momentum was clearly on WVU's side, but Tech just wouldn't let go, responding with a bucket by Ieva Kublina. Grace Carson checked back into the game, and scored a field goal to again close the Mountaineers to within three, but that was as close as it would get - after riding the bench for most of the first half and not starting the second, Chrystal Starling came off the bench and scored the next four points of the game, and a total of nine from that point on to put the Hokies up by as much as ten before the final margin settled at 66-60.

Kate Bulger finished the game as the leading scorer for West Virginia with 17 points on 7-20 shooting, including 3-9 from beyond the arc. She was followed closely by Yolanda Paige, who scored 16 points on 4-12 shooting and hit a perfect 8-8 from the stripe. Paige also dished out seven assists. The real hero, however, was senior Grace Carson. Her final game as a Mountaineer turned out to be the best - Carson scored a career-high 11 points on 5-6 shooting in 26 minutes of action. Grace filled the shoes of the missing Michelle Carter extremely well, and WVU would not have had a chance if not for the fight in the Flatwoods native. Latitia Williams scored eight, Janell Dunlap six, and Ashley Dunn scored two.

Ieva Kublina led Virginia Tech with 14 points.

It was a surprisingly bitter end to a rollercoaster season. The Mountaineer's newly found "never say die" attitude that seemingly had been adopted in the very same building (the Rutgers Athletic Complex) just about a month ago had nearly gotten them what would have been a huge upset, but it was bitter nonetheless. The same cold streak problem that had plagued the team during the conference season again nearly sealed their fate before the game was half over, and although short-handed and able to get some rare faces to step up and make a HUGE contribution, more likely heroes like Eartha White (who didn't score and had only three rebounds) and Janell Dunlap (who started to come alive in the second half) were kept nearly silent.

Nonetheless, it gives Mike Carey and his team another one to build on, and with a solid recruiting class next year could really be "the one" in getting over that conference hump. The Mountaineers finish this season with a winning overall record of 15-13, and a conference record of 4-13.


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