BATON ROUGE, La. — West Virginia’s NCAA second-round jinx was five minutes away from being deader than a possum on the side of I-10.
The end-game blueprint was two-faceted for the Mountaineers: Keep their poise and keep feeding the ball to Asya Bussie. Somehow, neither happened.
What occurred instead was an uncharacteristic meltdown for a veteran team that had chewed up these pressurized moments all season. Then again, March provides its own kind of pressure.
And this time, when LSU charged, WVU caved.
From seven points ahead with 5:05 left, West Virginia swooned to a 76-67 defeat that was dizzying, mystifying and lethally quick.
“We lost our focus,” said Bussie, who scored all of her 21 points in a gigantic second half yet rarely touched the ball during the crucial, closing minutes. “We weren’t defending and we weren’t executing the way we were earlier. Down the stretch we didn’t do things we were supposed to.”
Coach Mike Carey, who the previous day rightfully bragged about his team’s penchant for gutting out close games, witnessed pure panic on offense. Perhaps WVU’s balanced scoring actually became a negative, with proven shooters trying to stop the bleeding when tossing the ball inside to Bussie was the surest tourniquet.
“It’s hard to tell some of your good players that are wide-open on the perimeter not to take the shot when they’ve hit them all year,” he said. “But we’ve got to be smart enough to go inside. Asya was just dominating inside the second half.”
Christal Caldwell, just 48 hours removed from scoring a career-high 26 points, closed out her career by shooting only 3-of-19. Her five misses during LSU’s 20-4 closing run included a 14-foot air ball in the lane and traveling violation that negated another drive.
“I feel like I rushed a couple, and probably took some bad shots,” she said. “At the end of the day I just didn’t make them.”
But such a pronounced collapse wasn’t merely of the offense’s doing—not when LSU scored on its 10 final possessions. The Tigers made 6-of-9 shots during their surge and got offensive rebounds on all three misses.
“We just stopped rebounding—just didn’t box out,” Carey said. “We started giving them second and third shots. It’s hard to beat somebody when they 38 points in the paint.”
Despite paralyzing foul trouble and losing a concussed starter, LSU simply proved more resilient. Sophomore point guard Danielle Ballard scored 22 points, chased down 15 rebounds and made six assists. Forward Shanece McKinney finished with 13 points, seven rebounds and five blocks. And then there was reserve Jasmine Rhodes—held scoreless in her five previous games—contributing 11 points in relief of guard Jeanne Kenney, who left after taking a first-half bump to the head.
“They chose to dig a little deeper and give a little more for Jeanne,” LSU coach Nikki Caldwell said. “I’m extremely proud of this team for realizing how great they can be.”
How great a team West Virginia was instantly becomes debatable. That’s the cruel side of the NCAA tournament, where a few muddled minutes can sour the legacy of a historic season.
“I hate it,” said Christal Caldwell. “Just to know deep down in my heart that we did not play our best game and we did not do some things we’ve done all year. To go out like that really hurts.”
Especially after grousing about a perceived lack of respect ever since the brackets came down eight days ago. Carey led that rhetoric, partly to keep his players hungry in spite of their top-10 ranking. He realized lasting respect would only come with an extended tournament run.
That respect was so close Tuesday night, merely a few poised possessions removed from a Sweet 16. But unlike previous times this season, Carey’s 30-win team didn’t find the resolve to secure No. 31.
“It’s tough,” he said. “Nothing against LSU—they deserve a lot of credit—but I felt we gave one away.”