MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — On a championship night that carried extra sweetness for West Virginia’s five seniors, Bria Holmes was all too happy to play sixth man.

After deferring to a starting lineup of five seniors—including injured guard Brooke Hampton taking a ceremonial opening tip—the sophomore Holmes scored 16 points and the No. 7 Mountaineers beat Kansas 67-60 for a share of the Big 12 championship.

A crowd of 5,052 was on hand, the second-largest home crowd of the season, to see West Virginia (27-3, 16-2) hoist the trophy. Even though No. 9 Baylor (26-4, 16-2) secured its piece of a fourth consecutive title by whipping Iowa State 70-54 in Ames, that didn’t diminish the celebration in Morgantown.

MORE: Reaction from the Big 12 co-champs

“To win the Big 12 in your second year is great, and to do it with this group is great,” said coach Mike Carey. “I really mean what I say about these seniors—they deserve this.

“I want to thank the whole crowd—great crowd and great enthusiasm. Our girls really appreciated that. That’s the way to send these girls off.”

Hampton, out since suffering a knee injury in mid-February, was inserted into the starting five for the first time all season. She exited just two seconds into the game when West Virginia called timeout after claiming the tipoff. Also in the lineup for the first time was senior co-captain Jess Harlee, and another honoree, Taylor Palmer, made only her third start. They joined regulars Asya Bussie and Christal Caldwell, who scored 14 points each.

“A lot of tears, a lot of sweat,” said Bussie, whose career was prolonged because of last season’s medical redshirt. “It feels really good. This is something that we’ve always wanted, all throughout our careers. It’s a good feeling finally achieving this goal.”

Though Carey’s first 12 West Virginia teams averaged 20-plus wins and reached nine postseason tournaments, none were able to end the program’s title drought that stretched back to 1992. But after this team proved different, winning 10 straight to close the regular season, including Sunday’s signature upset at then-No. 6 Baylor.

By Tuesday night, there was an overwhelming sense of accomplishment—and a little relief—after the Mountaineers disposed of Kansas (12-18, 5-13). West Virginia had a quiet night from 3-point range, finishing 2-of-9, and shot only 39 percent overall. The difference was a 17-9 edge in forced turnovers and WVU’s 45-39 edge on the glass. Bussie grabbed nine of those rebounds.

Based on conference tiebreakers, the Lady Bears grabbed the top seed in the Big 12 tournament, while West Virginia settled for No. 2. Both earned first-round byes and will play Saturday in Oklahoma City, with WVU drawing the TCU-Texas Tech winner.

For once, however, Carey wasn’t so focused on the next opponent. As his players took turns trimming down the nets, he wanted them to savor the moment.

“I just said ‘Let’s enjoy this,’ and I gave them one day off.”

Kansas threatened to play spoiler much of the night and even led 36-34 with 17 minutes left on a Bunny Williams layup. Then Linda Stepney drove for the tying basket that sparked a 19-7 WVU run over the ensuing six minutes.

During a later stretch, West Virginia held Kansas without a field goal for 5:41. The lead ballooned to as much as 13 and never shrank below five points. When the game tightened up at 64-59, Bussie grabbed an offensive rebound and WVU reset, leading to Holmes’ backbreaking layup at the 1:19 mark.

Holmes was active and impactful, scoring 10 points in the second half on 5-of-7 shooting. And when the victory was done and the title was won, she couldn’t fathom how far her team had progressed. Remember opening night on this same Coliseum floor? When Ohio State beat WVU handily? Those Buckeyes own a 15-17 record now. The Mountaineers of March show little semblance to the Mountaineers of November.

For sure, Holmes and other underclassmen have helped WVU make its climb, yet Tuesday night was a culmination that belonged to the seniors.

Harlee produced nine points and, like Caldwell, grabbed six rebounds. Palmer played some point guard like she was in high school. Carey had a hug for each senior who paraded to the bench.

“A lot of tears, a lot of sweat. It feels really good. This is something that we’ve always wanted, all throughout our careers.” — senior center Asya Bussie

The postgame singing of “Country Roads” sounded more gleeful than ever and that was before someone pulled away a blue table cloth off to reveal the Big 12 trophy.

“We didn’t know we were going to get the trophy—we thought we were just going to get T-shirts or something,” said Palmer.

CeCe Harper scored 19 points and Natalie Knight added 17 for the Jayhawks.

“They really did a nice job defensively and (when) we turned it over, they scored,” said Kansas coach Bonnie Henrickson, whose team will be seeded eighth in Oklahoma City.

The Mountaineers strengthened their case for a flattering NCAA tournament position. Several projections have WVU as a No. 2 seed, which would suit Carey just fine.

“It’s all about seeding and location,” he said. “Hopefully we’ll be a 2 or 3 seed.”

Ben Queen/MetroNews photo

Christal Caldwell (1) and her West Virginia teammates sing “Country Roads” after beating Kansas to share the Big 12 championship.
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