Kari Niblack’s return from foul trouble sparks West Virginia in WNIT opener

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MORGANTOWN, W. Va. — By the time Kari Niblack’s debut in the WNIT was two minutes old Thursday, she already had two fouls and maybe one of West Virginia’s worst fears was being realized.

The Mountaineers survived an early push from Rider and ran away with an 83-43 victory in front of 1,032 inside the WVU Coliseum.

The bigger news was the Mountaineers (21-10) played without senior center Theresa Ekhelar, who was indefinitely suspended before the game for a violation of team rules.

“It just happened [Wednesday], so I couldn’t really adjust what we were going to do,” WVU coach Mike Carey said.

That left the Mountaineers with just eight scholarship players and with Niblack, a 6-foot-1 freshman from Leesburg, Fla., as the team’s lone post player.

That fact was not lost on Carey, who pulled Niblack aside before the game.

“I said, ‘Kari, you understand that you’re our only center. You can’t foul,’ ” Carey said. “Well, what was it, two minutes into the game she gets two fouls.”

Niblack said she could feel Carey’s icy glare as soon as the second foul was called.

“I was thinking about that conversation shooting free throws before the game,” said Niblack. “I’m talking to myself. Players are talking to me. I got that second foul and I could feel coach Carey’s eyes beaming into the back of my head. I didn’t want to turn around. I just walked over to the bench and got yelled at. I took it and moved on.”

On this night, so too did the Mountaineers, who held a slim 21-20 lead with 7:30 left in the second quarter, but eventually West Virginia’s athleticism made the difference.

Naomi Davenport finished with her 13th double-double of the season with 23 points and 15 rebounds and Niblack returned in the third quarter to score 14 of her 20 points. Tynice Martin added 23 points to move into 11th place on the school’s all-time scoring list and the Mountaineers cruised to the second round.

The Mountaineers will either host Villanova or Old Dominion at 3 p.m. Sunday. Those two teams play at 7 p.m. Friday.

Niblack’s return was the difference, as the freshman’s energy and ability to score in the paint could not be handled by the Broncs (19-13).

“You could see the difference once Kari got in there,” Carey said. “We could’ve went inside all night. I told Kari that she had 20 points and 13 rebounds in 19 minutes. If we could play her 30-some minutes, she’d be dangerous.”

Niblack had no points or rebounds at halftime. By the end of the third quarter, she had 14 points and eight rebounds.

“What did she play, 19 minutes?” Davenport said. “She gets 13 rebounds. Obviously she’s a threat out there. Just imagine if she plays 40 minutes. Next year, she’s going to be dangerous when she learns body control and moving her feet.”

Davenport’s and Niblack’s rebounding led to a season-high 61 boards for the Mountaineers, the most since the team had 62 against Morehead State in 2015.

Rider, “just missed a lot,” Carey said. “What did they shoot, 27 percent? We had two people get a double-double, so that was good. Tynice had eight [rebounds], so that was good. Those are the three people we need to rebound the ball.”

Stella Johnson led Rider with 18 points and nine rebounds, but the Broncs were held to just six baskets in the second half.

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