MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — West Virginia’s journey through the WNIT bracket, paved with overtimes and high-anxiety moments, is turning out to be a thrilling consolation ride.
Bria Holmes sank the tying free throws with 12 seconds left in regulation before the Mountaineers put away Temple during the extra session 66-58 on Wednesday night, earning a spot in the WNIT championship game.
Holmes scored 22 points, Averee Fields finished with 20 and Lanay Montgomery commanded the lane for 24 rebounds and eight blocks as West Virginia (23-14) won its fifth consecutive game since narrowly missing out on the NCAA field.
The finale comes Saturday in Charleston when West Virginia hosts UCLA for the WNIT crown.
“We’re playing our best basketball right now,” said coach Mike Carey. “It’s a shame we didn’t play earlier, because we’d like to have been in the NCAA tournament, but we’re in the NIT, and we’re in the championship game and we’re going to try to win it.”
“Our season didn’t go as planned, but we’re here and we have a chance to end our season on a win. That gives us momentum for next year.” —Lanay Montgomery
After erasing a late four-point deficit to force overtime against Villanova in the round of eight, WVU required another comeback. Trailing by a basket with 12 seconds left, Crystal Leary’s backcourt steal and feed to Holmes sent WVU’s top scorer to the line, where she was only making 61 percent.
“I was nervous because I felt like my free-throw shooting hasn’t been good in this tournament and hasn’t been good all year,” Holmes said. “But I got focused and made them.”
Tyonna Williams scored 15 for Temple (20-17), while Tanaya Atkinson finished with 10 points and 11 rebounds. One of her boards came on the physical last possession of regulation when the Owls missed three shots in the final 7 seconds with the game tied at 53-all.
Temple coach Tonya Cardoza protested the no-call at the time but declined to criticize officials after the game: “We got shots at the basket that didn’t go in.”
What was Carey’s take? “There was a lot of contact, but there was a lot of contact on both ends.”
West Virginia made all seven of its free throws in overtime, including one by Fields to complete a three-point play for a 60-55 lead in the final minute.
The Mountaineers finished 21-of-27 from the line, while Temple—an 82 percent free-throw shooting team in the WNIT—made only 7-of-18.
“We felt like we had the game within our grasp, but we let one slip away today,” Cardoza said.
Montgomery’s huge night, the fourth-best rebounding performance in program history, fueled WVU to a 58-47 edge on the glass. (“I’ve never had anywhere close to 24 rebounds at any level,” she said.) Her emphatic shot-blocking often had Temple’s undersized guards doing U-turns in the lane.
“I felt like I owed it to my team after the last game,” said Montgomery, who contributed four rebounds and no blocks in nine minutes against Villanova.
This time, the Mountaineers joined arms at midcourt and swayed to “County Roads.” It marked the season’s final game at the Coliseum, which is booked for an NCAA gymnastics regional on Saturday, shifting the WNIT title game to Charleston.
“We’re playing our best basketball right now. It’s a shame we didn’t play earlier, because we’d like to have been in the NCAA tournament, but we’re in the NIT, and we’re in the championship game and we’re going to try to win it.” — Coach Mike Carey
Fields, one of three seniors disappointed over West Virginia failure to earn an NCAA bid, absorbed some satisfaction from making a run through the secondary tournament.
“(A few weeks ago) I think, sadly, people saw the season coming to an end and that’s when we got desperate and decided to play together and play with more heart,” Fields said. “You wish people would realize that before it got to the end of the season.
“It’s a little frustrating, but you’ve got to let that go. I’m excited for the team. We just want a championship and we’ve got one more game to do that.”