BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) For all West Virginia has accomplished this season, coach Mike Carey appears more concerned with what the Mountaineers have not done.
Before WVU can begin to establish a reputation among the nation’s elite women’s basketball program, it needs a deep run in the NCAA tournament. Seeded second in the Louisville region, the Mountaineers open play Sunday afternoon against No. 15 seed Albany.
”We still don’t get a lot of respect throughout the country,” Carey said before practice on Saturday. ”Our girls are hungry. They understand that we have a lot to prove, and we haven’t proved anything yet. This tournament is very important.”
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The Mountaineers (29-4) and Great Danes (28-4) will tip off after the opening game in Baton Rouge between No. 7 seed LSU (19-12) and Georgia Tech (20-11).
In only its second season in the Big 12 – which includes women’s basketball powers Texas A&M and Baylor – WVU won the league’s regular season title and was riding a 12-game winning streak before losing to Baylor in the conference tournament title game.
WVU is in its school-record fifth straight tournament, and seventh in the last eight years under Carey, but the Mountaineers have never made it past the second round, going 7-9 all-time.
This season, the Mountaineers had four players averaging better than 10 points per game, led by sophomore guard Bria Holmes (15.1), and broke the previous school record of 26 victories. They also have their highest NCAA seeding ever. That means the expectations have never been higher.
”We haven’t done anything in the NCAAs, and that’s been under me,” Carey said. ”We’ve got a lot to prove. Our young ladies, they’ve played extremely well and hard and the whole thing, but we have some goals going forward here.”
Here are five things to know about Sunday’s games in Baton Rouge:
EXPERIENCE: West Virginia has five seniors who play regularly, including starters Christal Caldwell at guard and Asya Bussie at center, along with guard Taylor Palmer, who averages 10.1 points as a reserve.
”Having five seniors is good for the leadership and experience,” Bussie said. ”I feel like our team came together, not just the five seniors. Everybody knows their role – not just the seniors – and I think that’s what makes our team so special.”
SCORING OPTIONS: Albany, the America East Conference champion, has been able to score in a wide range of ways thanks to the diverse skill sets of three key players: forward Shereesha Richards, 6-foot-9 center Megan Craig and shooting guard Sarah Royals. Richards, the America East player of the year, has averaged 20.3 points per game.
”We’re the underdog, so we really don’t have anything to lose,” said Richards, whose team has lost only once in its last 20 games. ”We want to show West Virginia that we’re not just another team who’s not going to come out and fight.”
HOME ADVANTAGE: LSU is opening the tournament on its home court for a third straight season.
Baton Rouge has a long history of supporting women’s basketball, making it an attractive tournament site to the NCAA, and that has worked to the Lady Tigers’ benefit. They are 16-3 in tournament games in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, including a pair of victories a year ago. The second of those wins launched the then-sixth seeded Lady Tigers past No. 3 seed Penn State and into the regional semifinals.
”We definitely couldn’t have done it without that crowd there. I had the chills for like 20 minutes after that game,” recalled senior forward Theresa Plaisance, who leads LSU in scoring with 15.6 points per game. ”It was such a great experience for our seniors to go out like that last year. It was a blessing when we found out that we got the bid and we could play on our home court again.”
PUTTING UP POINTS: Led by all-time scorer Tyaunna Marshall, Georgia Tech has thrived on a fast-paced, high-scoring style, hitting the 90-point mark seven times this season.
Marshall is among the best guards in the nation, averaging 19.6 points per game this season, and forms a formidable back-court tandem with Sydney Wallace, whose 47 3-pointers is second on the team.
GOOD HEALTH: This tournament will be much different for LSU, which had only seven healthy players available for its second-round win last season. This season, LSU has 11 players available, none of whom have appeared in fewer than 21 games.
Meanwhile, Georgia Tech’s Wallace has missed the Yellow Jackets’ past three games with neck injury and hasn’t played since Feb. 27, but says she made the best of the layoff.
”I’ve taken the right steps and everything in getting back to where I need to be,” Wallace said. ”Sitting out and learning and watching helped me also.”