MORGANTOWN — West Virginia did not beat No. 1 Baylor on Monday night, but the Mountaineers may have answered the question of whether they are an NCAA tournament team in a 63-57 defeat.
“Heck yeah,” Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said emphatically when asked if the Mountaineers belong in the Big Dance.
The Bears (28-1, 18-0 Big 12) completed a perfect run through the Big 12 schedule, but not before getting one of their stoutest challenges of the season from a West Virginia team desperate to work its way into the tourney from its perceived position on the selection committee’s bubble.
Monday marked only the third time this season that a Big 12 team finished within 10 points of the Bears, who romped to their ninth-straight regular-season conference championship. Baylor is beating opponents by an average of 26.4 points per game this season.
West Virginia coach Mike Carey believes the Mountaineers (20-9, 11-7) have already proven their worthiness despite being ranked 68th in the Ratings Percentage Index.
“We probably are a bubble team, but I want to make this clear: We’ve won 20 games, 11 in conference,” Carey said. “No [Big 12] team that’s won 10 or more since 1999 [missed] the NCAA tournament. We just played the No. 1 team in the country down to the wire. If we’re not one of the teams, that’s hard to believe.”
Carey thinks there wouldn’t even be a question of West Virginia’s tournament worthiness if things were determined in an identical manner to the men’s field.
“It would never happen on the men’s side,” Carey said of the possibility of an 11-win Big 12 team being left out. “I think they would cancel the basketball season for the year. And it should not happen on the women’s side either. It’s frustrating to me to watch what’s going on out there.”
Few teams in the country have done such an effective job of frustrating presumptive Big 12 player of the year Kalani Brown as the Mountaineers did. The dynamic 6-foot-7 senior was limited to eight points — just the fourth time all season that she’s been in single digits.
“It’s pretty much the same thing [as they did before], but they were a lot more physical this time,” Brown said. “They were able to frustrate me and get me in foul trouble.”
The best defense against Brown is making sure she’s on the bench, and West Virginia did so thanks to 6-1 freshman Kari Niblack’s penchant for drawing fouls against her much bigger counterpart. Niblack scored 13 points off the bench.
“Kari was a big factor tonight in the paint. She’s undersized, but was getting Kalani in foul trouble early,” said WVU senior forward Naomi Davenport. “They still have height off bench, but not as big an impact as Kalani. Kari played a really big factor. That’s what you want to see from a freshman.”
But Baylor is No. 1 for a reason, and made do with only 26 minutes from Brown thanks to a 22-point, 10-rebound effort from 6-4 power forward Lauren Cox.
“Why would I shoot 3s when I’ve got 6-4 and 6-7 in the post?” Mulkey noted.
The Bears only attempted three shots from outside the arc. Davenport led West Virginia with 20 points and 13 rebounds in her final regular-season game at WVU Coliseum. Junior guard Tynice Martin added 18 points for the Mountaineers.
Baylor had a two-possession lead for the majority of the fourth quarter, but the Mountaineers didn’t execute on multiple chances to pull within a basket.
After Baylor extended its lead back out to eight, Davenport drained a 3 with 1:16 left to cut the margin to 55-50 and bring the home crowd to its feet. But the following possession ended up being the dagger.
Baylor retained the ball after a replay review of an out-of-bounds play with just 4 seconds left on the shot clock. Guard Juicy Landrum caught the ensuing inbounds pass near the top of the key, then drove to the hoop for a layup at the shot-clock buzzer to pull the Bears out of reach.
“We missed a bunch of foul shots and a bunch of layups,” Carey said. “Give our girls credit. But we should have won that game. We were right there, but we didn’t win it. That’s something you’ve got to do”