BATON ROUGE, La. — What began as a runaway for the West Virginia women turned into a second-half test against No. 15 seed Albany.
That’s when senior Christal Caldwell put the upset on hold.
With her team’s 22-point lead whittled down to five, Caldwell scored back-to-back buckets and the second-seeded Mountaineers regrouped during the final seven minutes for a 76-61 victory.
Caldwell scored a game-high 26 points on 10-of-16 shooting and heavily favored West Virginia (30-4) survived its first-round NCAA matchup against the Great Danes (28-5).
Bria Holmes contributed 20 points despite making only 1-of-12 from 3-point range, and Averee Fields pitched in 10 points and seven rebounds for the Mountaineers, who lost some aggression in the second half.
“We started off the game great, and we were passing the ball well and we had a lot of high energy,” Fields said. “But when halftime came we just came out lackadaisical.
“We’re just glad we got the win. We’re glad we took care of business.”
Albany’s 6-foot-9 center Megan Craig was a force with 23 points and her defensive presence limited Asya Bussie to only three points on 1-of-5 shooting. Despite a quiet day scoring, Bussie grabbed 12 rebounds and blocked three shots.
“They had the big girl inside, so we didn’t too much inside,” said Bussie, who had never faced so large a post player. “I wasn’t going to block (Craig’s shots), so I just put my hands straight up and tried to make the shots difficult for her.”
Leading 33-11 midway through the first half, West Virginia appeared to be on an easy path to Tuesday night’s second-round showdown against LSU. A 16-2 run—most of it accomplished while Craig sat on the bench with her second foul—had the Mountaineers humming.
“I was just itching to get back out there as quick as I could,” Craig said. “But I knew I couldn’t afford to get into any more foul trouble, particularly in the first half.”
Once Craig returned, it was WVU that encountered trouble. Albany methodically climbed back into the game, and when Craig sank a jumper with 7:03 left, the margin was down to 56-51.
“We just started passing the ball back-and-forth instead of attacking (Albany’s press),” said WVU coach Mike Carey. “We got lazy with our passes instead of attacking it and throwing it over the top and getting two-on-ones.”
The Danes had a chance to cut it to three points when Bussie blocked Sarah Royals’ layup leading to another Caldwell basket.
The teams combined to miss their next seven shots before Caldwell’s jumper stretched the lead to 60-51 with 4:29 remaining. From there, WVU made 13-of-17 free throws to put away the Danes.
Albany’s Shereesha Richards fouled out with four minutes left after scoring only nine points, 11 below her season average.
“Having Shereesha and Megan in foul trouble was the difference in the game,” said Albany coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson. “We had to change out a lot of stuff and look to some other players to get points. We just couldn’t get over the top once we got it down to five in the second half.”
Next up comes a game against home-standing No. 7 seed LSU on Tuesday, where a win would send West Virginia’s women to their first Sweet 16.
“Nothing against Albany, but if we play like that LSU will beat us,” Carey said. “There’s no doubt we’ll play better on Tuesday night.”