When the West Virginia Mountaineers take the floor Sunday night in the 2021 NCAA women’s basketball tournament, it’ll be the first time anyone on the roster has played in a game of that magnitude.
This is the Mountaineers’ first trip to the Big Dance since the 2016-17 season, and no one who was on the roster then is still on it now.
But head coach Mike Carey has been to the postseason many times, even dating back to his days at Salem University, when he and the other coaches drove a fleet of vans to tournament games instead of hopping on planes. Since he became the head coach in Morgantown in 2001, Carey has put a product on the floor that has consistently won – they’ve been to the WNIT five times and this will be the Mountaineers’ 11th NCAA tournament trip under Carey.
This tournament, Carey says, is a first-time experience for everyone, including a veteran coach like him.
Because of the pandemic, the 64-team tournament will be held at one site over the next few weeks. Arenas in and around San Antonio will host every single game. The players, coaches and staff will be in a bubble in the Alamo City.
“This is going to be like no other,” Carey said during a Zoom call Tuesday. “I mean, you get there and you have to quarantine for 48 hours. You have to eat boxed breakfasts, lunches, dinners. You can’t leave the hotel… So, this is not going to be like any experience I ever had.”
After finishing second in the Big 12 and runners-up in the conference tournament – losing in the title game to Baylor – West Virginia earned a No. 4 seed in the tournament in the Hemisfair Region. It’s a tough part of the bracket as it also features the SEC champs in South Carolina, the Big Ten champs in Maryland, three teams from the ACC and scrappy mid-majors like Stephen F. Austin.
In a normal year, West Virginia – as a top-four seed – would’ve hosted its first two games of the tourney in Morgantown. That could’ve been an advantage, but if you ask Carey, he’d like to see the whole thing be played on a neutral floor every year.
“You know, I’ve complained about – ‘This would never happen on the men’s side, to play on a home floor,’ and now we have to play at a neutral site when we would’ve had the advantage,” Carey said. “But no, I’d rather play on a neutral floor every year, whether it’s you know – I just think that’s fair. In the NCAA tournament, you play on a neutral floor, you don’t play on the home floor. That’s too big of an advantage.”
Mountain Hawks like the long shot
The Mountaineers’ first-round opponent is no walk-in-the-park. They’ll face No. 13 Lehigh, which won the Patriot League and is one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country. The Mountain Hawks are sixth in the nation in three-pointers made per-game this season with 9.8 and shot 34.3% from deep as a team. According to HerHoopStats, 40.7% of all of Lehigh’s points come from behind-the-arc, a mark that is the eighth highest in the country. They’re also 26th in the country in assists with 15.9 per-game and their +1.32 assist-turnover ratio in 12th-best in the nation.
West Virginia this season has allowed opponents to make 5.9-of-19.2 attempts from three per-game this season, a clip that ranks about middle-of-the-pack in the country at 30.8%. The Mountaineers’ three-point defense has been stronger lately though. In the Big 12 tournament, opponents made just 10-of-46 three’s against WVU for just a 21.7% success rate.
Carey’s squad will have to remain diligent with its perimeter defense against the Mountain Hawks.
“They have a bunch of shooters,” Carey said. “They’ll play a four-out, five-out, combination zones. They’ll play a 1-3-1 (or) a 2-3 box, or a triangle-and-two. They’ll play a little man. They’ll change up a lot… But they have a lot of shooters and they run a lot of stuff. They remind me a little bit of, when we used to be in the Big East and would have to play Villanova, some of the sets they run with the curls and flares and that type of stuff. So, we’ll have to get out and guard them.”
Martinez a game-changer on the glass
If West Virginia’s perimeter defense is solid and forces Lehigh into a lot of misses, they shouldn’t face much of a battle on the boards. Lehigh is one of the worst offensive rebounding teams in the nation, grabbing just 8.5 per-game, which ranks 324th in the nation. West Virginia meanwhile, has the 20th most defensive boards in the country, corralling 703 misses from opponents this season.
If Lehigh tries to spread West Virginia out with shooters, sophomore forward Esmery Martinez might find herself alone in the paint to grab those errant shots. And the 6-foot-2 native of the Dominican Republic seems more than up to the task, as she’s consistently been one of the best rebounders in the country all season long.
Martinez is key to Carey’s winning formula, as she’s averaging 13.6 points and 11.7 rebounds per game this season. That rebounding average is 13th best in the nation, and her 315 total boards is the third-most of any player this season.
“Esmery is very important,” Carey said. “I mean, even in the Baylor game – I’m going to tell you what – she went up against them players and did a terrific job, boxed them out and rebounded. I thought she did a great job all year. It’s so important that we keep people off the offensive boards, and her and (Kari Niblack) do a great job of that.”
Martinez got a knock on her ankle in the Big 12 title game against Baylor, but still finished with eight points, 11 rebounds, three blocks and three steals while she was often matched up with All-American NaLyssa Smith. Carey said Martinez should be “fine” to play against Lehigh. Martinez has had double-digit rebounds in six of her last eight games, including a 24-board outing against Kansas.
Everyone else on West Virginia is expected to healthy too, except Madisen Smith, who is still recovering from a leg injury she suffered on Feb. 20. Smith, a junior guard, is expected to travel with the team to San Antonio.
“Is she getting better? Yeah, but you know, I don’t know if we’re going to be willing to put her out there. She’s going to have to get a lot better over this weekend,” Carey said of Smith’s status. “We’ll see where it ends up. But I was watching her a little bit yesterday; they were having her with the ball, doing a little bit of zig-zag, but she’s not 100% right now. So, we’ll see what happens.”
Hopeful strong play carries over
In the midst of Smith’s absence, West Virginia has continued to see strong play from redshirt senior guard Kysre Gondrezick, who was named as an AP Honorable Mention All-American on Wednesday. Over her last seven games, the Michigan native has averaged 17.2 points, 2.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game. One area where Gondrezick has struggled lately is her three-point shooting, making just 25.5% of her attempts from that range in her last seven games.
KK Deans has played well over that stretch too, averaging 14.1 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game over her last seven contests. In the Big 12 tournament, she was often tasked with guarding the opposition’s top offensive threat. Against Kansas State, she came away with six steals.
“KK plays hard,” Carey said. “She has to guard the best offensive player on the other team on the perimeter. And then she gets up and down the floor and she also can score. So, she plays extremely hard. She has all year. Will she carry it over? There’s no doubt in my mind that she’ll carry it over because she always plays hard.”
West Virginia has been to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament just once before. That was in 1992, a time when none of the players on this team were even born yet.
If the Mountaineers want to get back to that stage, they’ll all need to play their very best.