Not just surviving, but thriving
MORGANTOWN — Mike Carey was recalling Monday a game earlier this season that wasn't much different than a lot of other games his West Virginia women's basketball team has played.
In other words, the Mountaineers were trailing.
"I can remember Christal Caldwell down at Oklahoma. We were down 10 or 12 and I was all over them in the huddle,'' Carey said. "And she walked by me after we break and she says, 'Coach, we got this. We got this.'
"I said, 'Well, you better hurry up. We're running out of time if we've got this.' "
That game in Oklahoma, like so many others this season, eventually did turn out the right way for WVU. After all, this is a team that to date has played 29 games and won 26 of them, so more often than not if Carey is assured by his players that they've got it, well, they probably do.
But, man, is it nerve-wracking.
"This group likes when the game is close,'' Carey said. "A lot of teams don't like that. . . . I don't like it.''
Welcome to the success story that is West Virginia's women's basketball team. It is apparently a team that, like it or not, just loves waiting until the last minute to get things done. But almost every time, it is a group that gets it done.
Consider that heading into tonight's home game at 7 against Kansas — the final game at the Coliseum for this team and for five seniors who are at the heart of it — the Mountaineers are 26-3 and freshly minted as the No. 7 team in this week's Associated Press Top 25. It is a team that has played six games against other Top 25 teams, won five and avenged the only loss. It has a chance, with a win tonight, to earn a Big 12 championship trophy that would be only the third league title of any kind in the program's history (a 1992 Atlantic 10 regular-season title and a 1989 A-10 tourney win were the others).
Perhaps the only thing more remarkable than any of that is that were its games 35, 36 — shoot, sometimes 39 and then some — minutes long, it might be average at best.
"We've been down 12, 14 in the second half and been able to come back,'' Carey said. "But you can't keep doing that against good teams because it's going to catch up to you.''
Well, it hasn't caught up to the Mountaineers yet. In fact, it's a situation in which they have managed to thrive.
No less than six times in WVU's 17 Big 12 games have the Mountaineers been behind in the final eight minutes. In two straight games just last month, West Virginia trailed by at least 13 points to Oklahoma and TCU and won. The Mountaineers were down a dozen to Oklahoma State, by eight to Texas in the last 3 1/2 minutes and by six at Kansas.
And then Sunday afternoon, they trailed Baylor by as many as eight. It was on the road against the No. 6 team in the nation on the Bears' senior day. That they won despite trailing and without the ball in the final 15 seconds was as much a testament to resolve as it was to forcing All-America guard Odyssey Sims into a turnover with 12 seconds to play. "It is a special group,'' Carey said.
Carey doesn't have much hesitation about calling that 71-69 win over Baylor in Waco the biggest in the 13 years he's coached the team, even if a handful of others might seem contenders. It's not the highest-ranked team his Mountaineers have beaten because there was a win over a No. 2 Notre Dame team in 2012. It's not even the highest-ranked team WVU has beaten on the road. The Notre Dame game and a win over No. 5 Louisville team in 2009 both were on the road.
"It's probably the biggest one because it gives us an opportunity to win the Big 12,'' Carey said. "I can remember beating Notre Dame and beating Rutgers [in the 2006 Big East tournament semifinals]. They were great wins for the program, but they weren't for [a chance to win] a conference championship.''
It's good to be in a position of having tough choices to make in regard to best-ever wins, of course, but here's the thing about that list. In every other instance the big wins were isolated in that they didn't really lead to something. In the Big East, if you beat Notre Dame or Rutgers or Louisville, there was always the Darth Vader-like Connecticut program still at arm's length.
Well, when West Virginia left the Big East for the Big 12, Baylor became the same sort of nemesis. But even so, now that Carey's team has managed to vanquish the two-time national champion, they still haven't accomplished much. In order for that win over the Bears to mean more, the Mountaineers have to follow through and win against Kansas tonight in order to make it really count.
And that's why it took Carey about 10 seconds after the win on Sunday to start looking forward. He then spent a night of travel — because of weather the team didn't arrive back in Morgantown until Monday morning — reiterating his point to his team.
"The most important game is [Kansas],'' said Carey, whose team can clinch at least a tie for the Big 12 title with a win [Baylor finishes at Iowa State]. "I knew we'd be ready for Baylor, but we can't take Kansas for granted. They're good enough to beat you.''
As long as the game goes the full 40 minutes, though, you have to like this team's chances.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.