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WVU Women’s Basketball

WVU Hopes to Improve NCAA Seeding at Big 12 Women’s Basketball Tournament

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(photo: Dale Sparks/WVU Athletic Communications)

The West Virginia University women’s basketball team ended its regular season earlier this week with a disappointing road loss at No. 6 Baylor. The Mountaineers stuck with the Bears for three periods – trailing by just eight points entering the fourth quarter – but then Kim Mulkey’s side pressed on the gas and pulled away for a 23-point win.

Still, by all accounts, the regular season was a successful one for Mike Carey’s squad. The Mountaineers finished with a 19-5 mark, including a 13-5 record in Big 12 play and a pair of non-conference wins over SEC teams. Four Mountaineers were named to All-Big 12 honors.

So, while the Baylor loss stung, the Mountaineers have been able to quickly lick their wounds and shift their focus. Up next is the Big 12 tournament in Kansas City, and what awaits West Virginia are opportunities to improve its resume for NCAA tournament seeding, and perhaps the chance to get another crack at those pesky Baylor Bears.

“I think we can definitely help it, if we can advance in the (Big 12) tournament,” Carey said Wednesday over a Zoom call of WVU’s NCAA tournament outlook.

In most years, getting seeded one-through-four in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament means that those teams get to host games in their arena during the first weekend of play. The difference between a No. 4 seed and a No. 5 seed was sizable, because homecourt advantage was at stake.

But this season isn’t like the ones that came before it. Because of the pandemic, the entire NCAA tournament is going to be played in Texas, mostly in and around San Antonio. No team will have a real homecourt advantage.

For Carey, the difference in a higher seed and a lower seed all comes down to match-ups. As of Thursday afternoon, ESPN’s Charlie Creme had WVU as a No. 4 seed, projected to face Belmont in the first round. Russell Steinberg of The Next has the Mountaineers as a No. 3 seed, matched up with Fresno State.

“That makes it, you know, in my opinion, fair that everybody’s going to play on a neutral floor,” Carey said. “We can definitely can help our cause, but you’d have to go the (Big 12) championship game in order to help your cause. You’re not going to help it with just one win or whatever; you’re going to have to get in the championship game.”

And so, that’s where West Virginia’s sights are set: The Big 12 title game, which will be played a 1 p.m. at Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City on Sunday. The game will air live on ESPN2.

With the Mountaineers getting the No. 2 seed in the conference tournament, that goal is a realistic and achievable one. WVU has to win Friday and Saturday to get there though. On Friday, they’ll face the winner of Texas Tech and Kansas State at 6:30 p.m.

“They both bring a different challenge,” Carey said of the Red Raiders and Wildcats. “I mean, in tournament time, you got to play who’s there. And everybody’s played everybody twice right now. So, there’s really no surprises. What the teams are going to do. You just got to come out and execute and hope you’re hitting shots.”

Sinking shots is something the Mountaineers have been pretty good at this season. They’re shooting 45.3% from the field, which is 26th best in the nation. Their 36.4% mark from three-point range is 27th best in the nation. WVU is also 19th in free throws made this season with 342, according to HerHoopStats.

Shooting and offensive production isn’t a concern of Carey’s heading into the postseason. What he’s really worried about is the number of fouls the Mountaineers have racked up lately and how often they’ve gotten into foul trouble.

“The biggest thing is getting in foul trouble, to be honest with you,” Carey said. “If we can just stay out of foul trouble, we’re ok.”

The Mountaineers could be short-handed Friday against their first opponent in the tournament, as redshirt senior guard Kysre Gondrezick is still nursing an injury. The unanimous first team All-Big 12 selection sprained her ankle in WVU’s regular season finale against Baylor.

“Kysre still has a lot of soreness in her ankle. She’s not full go yet,” Carey said. “So, we’ll see where she’s at come Friday, but as of right now, she’s not full go.”

West Virginia will also be without guard Madisen Smith, who hasn’t played since Feb. 20 when she suffered a leg injury in a win over TCU. Carey isn’t making any guarantees, but he’s hopeful Smith can be back for the NCAA tournament.

“We really don’t know (when) she’ll be ready,” Carey said. “I’ve already told her, if she’s not 100% we’re not playing her. I’m not going to take a chance getting her reinjured, because it was a bad injury. I told her she’s probably going to hate me if I decide not to play her in the NCAA’s. But, you know, it is what it is. I’m not going to put somebody out there to get hurt. And so, we’ll just have to keep evaluating her and see where she’s at.”

Before her injury, Smith was averaging 8.7 points, 2.8 rebounds and 4.2 assists per-game while shooting 31.9% from three-point range. In her absence, Carey has had to rely on other guards along his bench, like Georgia Tech transfer Jasmine Carson.

Carson was used sparingly at the beginning of the season, but has become a valuable asset to the team over its last five games, beginning with the TCU contest where Smith got hurt. Since Feb. 20, Carson is averaging 6.6 points, 2.4 rebounds and an assist per-game while shooting 38.8% from three-point range. Carson had 11 points against Kansas State on March 3.

“She gives us another scorer. She can shoot the basketball,” Carey said. “She has continued to learn our system, continued to get better on the defensive end, continued to take care of the basketball… And I do want to mention (Kirsten Deans) and (Kari Niblack) was honorable mention in the Big 12, and they did a great job this year also.”

Indeed, Deans is third on the team in scoring with 13.8 points per-game and is also second in minutes played for the Mountaineers. Niblack is fourth in scoring and second in rebounding, and she’s also been one of WVU’s top defenders.

Should West Virginia make it to Sunday’s Big 12 title game – where it’s likely that it’ll meet Baylor for the third time this season – Carey will need all of his players at their best to pull off the upset.

Oh, and he’ll need them to stay out of foul trouble too. On Monday, West Virginia committed 27 fouls, giving the Bears 30 free shots from the charity stripe. That can’t happen again.

“They have great players. They have All-Americans on their roster,” Carey said. “We were in foul trouble both games… I feel very comfortable playing Baylor, I really do. But we got to stay out of foul trouble. We’re just not deep in the post right now. if we don’t stay out of foul trouble, their two posts are really, really good.”

Getting to Sunday and winning would give West Virginia its second Big 12 tournament title, and of course, boost its resume and seeding position ahead of the NCAA tournament.

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