The West Virginia women's basketball team went from limping into the Big 12 tournament to marching out of Oklahoma City back to Morgantown on Tuesday holding aloft the tournament's championship trophy. An automatic NCAA tournament bid was in its possession.
The key to that turnaround, from a 7-10 finish to the regular season to knocking off three straight ranked team's for WVU's first women's hoops title? According to the Mountaineers, it was a matter of the mind.
WVU, which entered the tournament at 20-10 but started the season at 13-0, figured it was an NCAA tournament bubble team, a group that had fallen from the ranks of the national top 25 and needed at least one win, maybe two, to earn an NCAA berth.
The Mountaineers decided that two wins wasn't enough. They wanted to guarantee themselves an NCAA tournament seeding.
"I think we just came down here and our minds were set," senior Lanay Montgomery said after WVU's 77-66 win over Baylor in the conference championship game. "The girls knew it was all or nothing. Our backs were against the wall and we just had to give it our all. We came out and played strong, tough and physical for three games."
WVU coach Mike Carey could tell something was different with the team even before it traveled to Oklahoma City. Pre-tournament practices in Morgantown looked good, and practices at the tournament site looked even better.
"They were focused and you could just see it in their body language," Carey said. "I said in here after the Oklahoma game, I had to shut down our shootaround because they were just so focused and going so hard, we needed some energy for the game."
There were no worries about lost energy against the Sooners. WVU blitzed No. 19 Oklahoma 82-58. Then came No. 12 Texas and a 62-59 win in holding off the Longhorns. Against No. 2 Baylor in the championship, West Virginia led by as many as 21 before the Bears tried to rally in the fourth quarter.
Tournament Most Outstanding Player Tynice Martin helped keep the Bears at bay, hitting 4 of 6 free throws down the stretch as part of her 32 points Monday night, a Big 12 championship game record. Her 27.3 points per game for the tournament was the third-highest in the tournament's history.
Carey said Martin, who now leads the league at 18.6 points per game, always has been a scorer for the Mountaineers, but she has improved her game even more during this season.
"Once she learned how to start moving without the basketball and attacking the rim, good things happened for her," Carey said. "Our players, you got to give our players a lot of credit, because, man, they looked for her in this tournament. They really looked for her. When she broke open she had the ball and that's the key."
Martin said she was just trying to match the energy she saw in her teammates right before and during the Big 12 tournament. As much as the Mountaineers struggled down the regular-season stretch, they fired on all cylinders in their first steps into the postseason.
"It was just different from the regular season," Martin said. "Everybody was playing hard. I could tell from the Oklahoma game that we came here to win."
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