The Mountaineers (13-1, 1-0) have climbed to No. 19 in the ESPN/USA Today poll as a result of their solid record. They will take on their second ranked opponent of the season when the No. 18 Panthers come to the Coliseum for a 7:00 p.m. tip.
Pittsburgh (11-3, 0-1) will have a bit of extra motivation for the contest, as it dropped its Big East Conference opener in a 66-55 decision at Marquette on Saturday.
“We need to come out ready to play,” said WVU head coach Mike Carey. “They lost their first game in the conference and can’t afford to lose two, so they’re going to come out and play extremely hard.”
Carey’s squad avoided a similar fate, taking out a tough St. John’s team at Carnesseca Arena 54-50 on the same day. The Red Storm came into that contest sporting a 12-1 record, and the head man was pleased to see his team earn the win.
“I’ll tell you what -- St. John’s was athletic and a really good basketball team,” said the ninth-year West Virginia coach. “St. John’s has really improved and they’re young, too. They’re going to be good for years.”
“I felt we didn’t have great games out of some of our leaders, so with (center) Asya (Bussie) stepping up and (guard) Vanessa House off the bench, I felt very fortunate to win that game.”
With Bussie and junior guard Liz Repella in foul trouble for much of the game, Carey’s team was often without the offensive productivity of its top two scorers (averaging 12.5 and 15.5 points per game, respectively).
But as has been the coach’s mantra since taking over in Morgantown, defense won the day for WVU. Carey’s trademark swarming man-to-man attack harassed St. John’s into 16 turnovers and limited it to only 23.8 percent shooting from the field.
The latter mark was the second-lowest field goal percentage a Mountaineer team had allowed since the program entered the Big East in 1995 (WVU held Pitt to 20.3 percent shooting in a 2008 game).
“We played hard defense,” said Carey. “We held them to 20-something shooting percentage from the floor, but we gave up 21 offensive rebounds. We didn’t do a good job on the boards. We’ve got to continue to improve in that area.”
While the coach may want to polish his team’s effort on the glass, he has had plenty of chances in practice to iron out many of the wrinkles on a versatile team that has shown promise.
West Virginia played at then-No. 3 Ohio State in its third game of the season as part of the Preseason WNIT. It came out of that contest licking its proverbial wounds after taking a 92-69 thrashing, but that may have played to Carey’s advantage.
The squad returned home with a renewed sense of purpose, taking out Duquesne 73-52 before traveling to Reno, Nev. to play in the Nugget Classic tournament. WVU eked out a 69-66 win over Iowa in the semifinals on Nov. 27.
Until the win at St. John’s on Jan. 2, the Mountaineers had won each game since that victory over the Hawkeyes by at least 20 points.
It helped that Carey and company had not had to leave the friendly confines of the Coliseum since winning the title game of the Nugget Classic 66-41 over Nevada.
While others traveled, West Virginia sat at home and worked on the things the Buckeyes had exposed early in the season while polishing its game against some weaker opponents.
“I think playing Ohio State so early in the season really exposed all of our weaknesses,” said Repella. “We got to concentrate on those weaknesses for that whole month. We played some good teams -- Marist, Fresno State -- so we definitely did get prepared for the Big East.”
That showed when the Mountaineers managed to overcome foul trouble and other issues to survive their first true test (and first road game) in more than a month by winning at St. John’s.
“We got tested early,” said Repella. “We were blowing out teams by 20 and were on our home court, so to go up there to New York and get a win was definitely a confidence builder.”
WVU might need that confidence to overcome an always-tough Pittsburgh squad on Tuesday night.
The Panthers beat their Backyard Brawl rivals both in Morgantown and in the Steel City a year ago, and Carey is looking for payback in the Mountaineers’ first game against a ranked opponent since that Ohio State loss.
“I want to beat them and I want to beat their coaches,” said Carey. “We owe them.”
“Any time you play Pitt is a big game. It just happens we’re both ranked right now.”
“They’re going to come in here ready to play, and our girls have to match their intensity.”
While Carey has had plenty of success since taking over the West Virginia program (reaching the NCAA Tournament three times in the past five seasons, including a pair of second-round appearances), he said he believes this team is a bit different than some of his others.
A talented group of veterans led Carey’s most successful Mountaineer team to this point, as seven seniors powered WVU to a second-round NCAA Tournament appearance after spending almost all of the 2007-08 season in the Top 25 nationally.
This time around is another story. West Virginia is one of only eight teams nationally with no seniors on its roster. Repella is a junior, and the team’s leading scorer, Bussie, is a 6-4 freshman who brings a serious post presence to the floor.
“What I like about this year’s team is we don’t have to live and die by the 3 like we had to do in the past couple years,” Carey said. “We’ll go inside-out or we’ll penetrate the gap or get an offensive rebound -- that type of stuff. We break down the zone a little bit more than we have in the past.”
Key to that is the play of point guard Sarah Miles, (9.7 points per game, 7.0 assists per game) who made a quick return from a knee injury at St. John’s. The speedy junior has “seemed back to normal” in practice this week, according to Carey.
“I think the difference is Sarah,” said Repella. “She’s so quick, and I don’t think we ever had that quick of a point guard on my freshman (year’s) team.”
Add in the play of Bussie, who is West Virginia’s first serious post presence since Olayinka Sanni graduated and began play in the WNBA two years ago, and Carey has plenty of weapons at different positions at his disposal.
But beyond the Xs and Os, Repella said this year’s WVU team is different from the ’07-’08 squad, on which she became a contributor off the bench down the stretch.
“We’re definitely a closer team,” said the Steubenville, Ohio native. “The team chemistry is totally different from when I was a freshman. Everyone is really close on this team.”