By TOM BONE
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
The West Virginia women's basketball team is good, and deep and experienced. The squad from Marshall is – well, young.
The Mountaineers turned in a dominant performance on Saturday afternoon in the Charleston Civic Center, running away from the Thundering Herd 82-51 to begin the Capital Classic in the capital city.
West Virginia (8-1) head coach Mike Carey said, “You know what? We're where we need to be right now,” Carey said. “We've got a long way to go, but I like the chemistry, I like the players. The players are great young ladies, they all get along well. And we're 10 deep. That's great, to be 10 deep.”
“I think that West Virginia has the potential to be a Sweet 16 team,” said Marshall's second-year coach Matt Daniel. “They are athletic and big and have all the tools. A huge part of that is the experience. They're a senior-laden team and they've been through the wars together.”
“We're obviously very young,” he said. “We signed 10 new faces heading into this past fall. So we're still trying to figure out who we are. We just started our fourth different lineup in eight games.”
Princeton native McKenzie Akers, a true freshman at Marshall, played 14 minutes off the bench at both point guard and shooting guard. She was effective on defense, making life difficult for the execution of West Virginia's plays on the perimeter. On offense, she was 0-for-4 shooting, all of her attempts coming from 3-point range.
The crowd included several Princeton residents and some of Akers' family members.
Setting the stage for their ninth straight win over Marshall, three Mountaineers connected from outside to create a quick 8-0 lead. Marshall (3-5) adjusted, with reserve Lanay Montgomery stealing the ball and sinking a reverse layup to produce an 8-8 tie.
Bria Holmes got West Virginia back on track, with five straight points to key a 14-2 run over the next five minutes. The Herd never had a chance after that, as WVU pushed its lead to as many as 32 points in the midpoint of the second half.
Carey said, “I thought we took them out of a bunch of their sets. Where they hurt us, we started relaxing and they started driving us, especially at the end of the first half. … But I thought, overall, the girls played hard, they played as a team.”
Senior guard Taylor Palmer said, “It's a tiring defense, but it gets the other team out of its comfort zone. They can't run their sets. So it's hard, but it works.”
Holmes was out the last two games, being evaluated after a concussion. Carey said, “I didn't know how much I was going to play her, but she looked pretty good, for just coming back.”
Holmes said, “I was a little worried this morning, because I didn't know what Coach Carey was going to do ... because he was still kind of nervous about my concussion. But I felt normal.”
Her presence helped take pressure off senior center Asya Bussie, who finished the game with 16 points, three assists, five rebounds, two blocks, two steals, and the most valuable player award.
Carey said, “We hit some threes today, and I thought we got Asya Bussie the ball a little bit more. … I thought she moved well inside, and our girls looked for her. That was a good sign, there.”
Christal Caldwell of WVU was the only player with double-digit rebounds, clearing the boards 10 times.
Leading the Thundering Herd stats were Norrisha Victrum, with 13 points, and Erica Woods, whohad 11 points, five rebounds and four steals.
The Herd shot just 25.9 percent from the floor in the first half, while the Mountaineers hit 14 of 31 attempts. West Virginia made 22 of 32 free throws in the game; Marshall was 10 for 19.
Marshall was without one of its best players, center Chukwuka Ezeigbo. She returned home to Nigeria late this week due to the death of her father. “Our thoughts and prayers are with her and her family,” Daniel said.
Her absence had a pronounced effect in rebounding, where WVU amassed a 53 to 27 advantage.
“They've got great size inside,” Daniel said. “They killed us on the glass.”
Daniel said that in the second half, “We were just trying to mix it up, and keep our kids into it. Sometimes that's hard. … We're a lot better than we're playing, right now, but we're still trying to figure out who we are, as we mature and grow. But they (the Mountaineers) are a lot better than they were last year.”
“They are athletic enough to recover from mistakes. So they can gamble, and if they miss, they can get back in the play. They're never out of the play. … On the defensive end, it's hard to get passes off, much less shots.”
Daniel said, “I think you saw a championship team in West Virginia today, and I thought our young kids and new kids battled the best we could, given the circumstances.”
The format of the Capital Classic changed again this year, with a day-night doubleheader. Confusion about the pregame allocation of time to each team got under the Marshall coach's skin.
Daniel said, “I didn't like the format today, because the shootarounds were so backed up. We ended up being shorted in our shootaround time. … It felt like we were put on the back burner a little bit. I don't think that's good for our game. I don't think that's good for our kids.”
“I think our kids are just as important as anybody else's kids, whether it's West Virginia or Marshall or male or female or anything like that.”
Carey was a little more settled after the game.
“I just go by the game (schedule),” he said. “I don't think it was such a big deal.”
Carey said that he doesn't like thinking of the annual game with Marshall as a rivalry.
“I like the people, I like the coaches. I always have,” the WVU coach said. “We have no girls from the state of West Virginia on our team, so when I explain it to them, they don't understand anyway. To me, it was another game that we need to come out and win.”
Caldwell said the intrastate competition “makes the game a lot bigger. You want to be the better school in the state, (and) to be able to represent, and to come out with a W (win). Everybody wants to get a W.”
— Contact Tom Bone at firstname.lastname@example.org