For the West Virginia Mountaineers, the prologue in Oklahoma City is over. A second consecutive Big 12 Tournament title will lead them through two of the best teams in the nation, and they need to rise to the occasion or see their NCAA dreams go down in flames.
The No. 7 Texas Longhorns (25-5, 16-3 Big 12) comfortably beat West Virginia (21-10, 9-10 Big 12) both times these two teams faced off in the regular season, winning by a combined 39 points. The Mountaineers will have to step up their game on Sunday, when they try to knock off Texas in the Big 12 semifinal.
But West Virginia had to be giant killers last season to win the Big 12 title, and against three-seed Oklahoma State last night they overcame their lack of depth to lead all 40 minutes in an impressive 69-60 win.
“Give our players credit,” head coach Mike Carey said after last night’s win. “We got tired at the end, started turning it over. Overall, we executed our game plan and got a little sloppy, but I think that was mostly because we got tired. We had some people come off the bench and give us some great minutes today and that really helped us.”
Before the tournament, West Virginia’s path to a second straight Big 12 title looked to lead them through three teams that swept the Mountaineers in the regular season.
With a squad that has been shorthanded all season, Carey desperately needs some production off the bench in Oklahoma City. He got that against Oklahoma State, as junior center Theresa Ekhelar turned in one of her best performances of the season: 5 points and 6 rebounds in 10 minutes battling Cowgirls big Kaylee Jensen, who tortured West Virginia inside in two regular season matchups.
Backup point guard Ashley Jones also turned in some productive minutes, giving hobbled starter Chania Ray some much-needed rest. That burst off the bench will be needed against Texas, who boasts one of the most experienced and varied offensive attacks in the Big 12.
Texas has two senior guards – Ariel Atkins (15.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3.3 assists per game) and Brooke McCarty (14.1 points, 4.4 rebounds, 4.5 assists per game) – who were named to the All-Big 12 First Team this week, while third guard Lashann Higgs was also an All-Big 12 Second Team honoree.
But Texas also threatens teams inside, fielding several bigs standing 6-foot-4 or above. The best is junior Jatarie White, who hurt West Virginia for 18 points and 10 rebounds in the Longhorns’ 73-55 win in Morgantown on February 5.
On Saturday, Atkins scored 25 points while White contributed 18 points and 12 rebounds as the Longhorns comfortably saw off Iowa State 81-69 in the quarterfinals. Texas outrebounded Iowa State by 13, while also shooting 9-16 from 3-point range on the outside.
West Virginia’s semifinal matchup with Texas is set to tip off at 5:30 p.m. from the Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, and will be broadcast live on Fox Sports 1.