OKLAHOMA CITY--Before the Big 12 Tournament began earlier this week, West Virginia coach Mike Carey looked at the bracket and shook his head.
Two of the toughest matchups for his team--TCU and Texas--were likely to stand in the way of a meeting with fellow co-Big 12 champion Baylor for the Mountaineers.
Sunday, West Virginia dispatched of the second of those teams, taking down Texas, 67-60, at Oklahoma City's Chesapeake Energy Arena.
The Mountaineers beat TCU by a nearly identical score--67-59--in Saturday’s second round.
Carey said the two teams’ defense and physicality made them a tough matchup. West Virginia will play Baylor at 8 p.m. CDT Monday for the title.
“Now we’re going to end up playing three physical teams back-to-back-to-back,” Carey said.
Sunday’s game was tight early, with neither team leading by more than two until more than 10 minutes had passed. But West Virginia took a measure of control by holding Texas without a point for more than four minutes and took a 28-21 lead into halftime.
The Mountaineers built the lead with solid interior defense, slowing down Texas center Imani McGee-Stafford. McGee-Stafford had averaged 18 points over the last four games but was held scoreless for the first half. She finished just 2 of 7 from the floor with five points.
“We got up the lane on her,” Carey said. “She does an excellent job of selling people down there and all that, and we were able to get up the lane, even when we switched with a guard they stayed on top and we were able to get weak-side help.
“And then the other things, I thought we got decent ball pressure, where at times she was open, but they really couldn’t see it, get it in there.”
West Virginia looked to be well on the way to putting the game away with a 9-3 run that put the Mountaineers up 10 with just under eight minutes left in the game.
But Texas had one last push left.
Chassidy Fussell drove to the bucket and finished off a three-point play, then grabbed a rebound on the other end and pushed it up to Celina Rodrigo, who found Kelsey Lang under the basket. A minute later, Fussell grabbed another defensive rebound but this time finished it off herself, drawing a foul underneath the basket and converting her free throws to cut the Mountaineers' lead to just one with four minutes left.
But 10 seconds later, Texas’ comeback hopes all but ended when West Virginia’s Christal Caldwell started to drive toward the basket and drew a foul on Fussell--her fifth.
“That was a killer when Chass fouled out because I thought we were right there,” Texas coach Karen Aston said. “It was just unfortunate for us because Chass was really kind of the anchor to that group, and she was playing well. She was shooting the ball well.”
The Longhorns had to try to get Brady Sanders, who was 0 for 5 from the field at that point, going. But Sanders, who came into the game averaging 7.6 points per game, missed a pair of 3-pointers down the stretch to finish 0 for 7.
Caldwell hit all six of her free throws in the final 3:49 to help the Mountaineers maintain the lead.
Texas did make one final push without Fussell, cutting the lead back to two with 1:31 left on Rodrigo’s layup, but the Longhorns missed their last four shots and West Virginia advanced.
“We took a couple bad shots, led to fast breaks on the other end, gave up a couple three-point plays on the other end,” Carey said. “I just felt we didn’t execute as well as we should have going down the stretch to let them back in, but give them credit too.
“At the end, I thought our players stepped up. They tried to press us. Their press didn’t hurt us. They had to end up fouling us and we were able to go to the line and hit the foul shots.”
Bria Holmes had 14 of her game-high 23 points after halftime, Caldwell added 15 and Taylor Palmer 10 off the bench.
West Virginia scored 23 points off 18 Texas turnovers. Asya Bussie had three steals for the Mountaineers.
Fussell led the Longhorns (21-11) with 15 points. Nekia Jones added 14 off the bench as Texas’ reserves scored 24 points, forced in part by foul trouble that led to both Fussell and Nneka Enemkpali fouling out.
FINAL: QUICK OVERVIEW
Championship Game: (1) Baylor v. (2) West Virginia, 8 p.m. CDT (FS1)
West Virginia has a good measure of confidence going into Monday’s title game against three-time defending league tournament champion Baylor. On March 2, the Mountaineers knocked off the Bears 71-69 in Waco, ruining Baylor’s home finale.
But though West Virginia pulled out that win, the Mountaineers still have to figure out a way to slow down Odyssey Sims, the nation’s leading scorer in Monday's title tilt. Sims scored an average of 43.5 points per game in the two games against the Mountaineers.
“Well, we haven’t covered her yet, so I guess we don’t have a plan” West Virginia coach Mike Carey said when asked how he’d try to contain Sims. “What we did a good job of at Baylor, she had 38 but we did a great job on other people and didn’t let them hurt us and we kept them off the offensive boards as much as we could.”
“This last time, obviously, was a heartbreaker for us,” Baylor’s Makenzie Robertson said. “We have to come out and stay focused and be ready for whatever they throw at us.”
If the Mountaineers are to pull off another win, they’re likely to need to withstand an early flurry.
“Our goal was just going to be to keep it close going into four minutes left,” Carey said. “Baylor likes to jump on you, go up 15, 20 and that type of stuff.
“We’ve just got to keep it close, keep it close, and then both teams have pressure on them with four minutes to go in the game.”
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