West Virginia likely to have several players in more featured roles when welcoming Kansas

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Six games remain for West Virginia’s women’s basketball team before the Big 12 Tournament, and for the second straight matchup, the Mountaineers look to protect home court Wednesday in an effort to split a regular season series.

This time, WVU welcomes Kansas for a 7 p.m. affair at the WVU Coliseum. It’s one of three home games remaining for Dawn Plitzuweit’s team, which is seeking another quality victory in an effort to enhance its postseason resume in her first season as head coach.

“What people don’t really understand at the same level as players and coaches in general is that winning is really hard,” Plitzuweit said. “It takes a concerted amount of effort and energy and sometimes things have to kind of go your way, too. It’s a grind and then on top of it, the Big 12 is a physical battle every game and you have to find ways to physically recover before the next matchup. It’s a very major challenge. 

“Playing at home or on the road and the travel that goes into it, all of that presents major challenges. We’re going to have to have an extra amount of energy, enthusiasm and excitement and find a way against a team we had struggles with.”

WVU enters off a much-needed 73-60 victory over then-No. 21 Iowa State last Saturday, allowing the Mountaineers (15-8, 6-6) to get back to .500 in conference play and secure their second victory over a ranked opponent.

Nov 17, 2022; Morgantown, West Virginia, USA; West Virginia Mountaineers guard Danni Nichols (4) dribbles the ball during the second quarter against the Winthrop Eagles at WVU Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Ben Queen

“We played more as a team than we have all year, and we passed the ball really well,” WVU fifth-year guard Danni Nichols said. “Everyone contributed and it was fun to see that.”

Nichols is one of several players likely to assume a more featured role Wednesday and perhaps in other games down the line.

The Mountaineers are dealing with injuries to a trio of players — starters Jayla Hemingway and Kylee Blacksten and key reserve Savannah Samuel. Samuel did not play Saturday against the Cyclones after suffering an injury last week, while Hemingway and Blacksten suffered second-half injuries that forced them out of the win over ISU for good.

“We’re pretty beat up,” Plitzuweit said. “The report this morning from our athletic trainer is Savannah is improving, but likely will not be cleared by Wednesday. Kylee and Jayla are both improving too, but there’s not the greatest probability.”

Hemingway is WVU’s third-leading scorer with an average of 9.5 points as well as its top rebounder at 5.8

Blacksten, like Hemingway, has started all 23 games and averages 6.7 points and 3.6 rebounds.

Samuel is seventh in scoring with a 4.2 average.

“Maybe we get one back, but it gives other young ladies opportunities to play and compete,” Plitzuweit said. “Maybe there are some ways we alter how we guard, but we’re 23 games into the season and we are who we are, and we’re working to get better at who we are. To say that we’re not going to push it up the court, that’s how we’re most effective scoring the ball. Our perimeter speed is an advantage for us, so we have to find ways to attack.”

If Hemingway and Blacksten can’t go, Nichols figures to join Madisen Smith, JJ Quinerly, Kyah Watson and another new starter in the first five. The fifth figures to be a front court player, with Tavy Diggs or Isis Beh the likely options.

Beh is coming off her most productive outing as a Mountaineer when she scored nine points and had three rebounds in 16 minutes against ISU.

“When she scores, the bench goes crazy, and she’s done really well scoring around the rim,” Nichols said. “It makes everyone more confident to throw the ball inside and let her do her thing in there.”

Quinerly leads the team with an average of 14.7 points, while Smith follows at 12.8. Smith’s 66 assists and Quinerly’s 50 steals are both team bests.

The Jayhawks (16-7, 6-6) are tied with WVU in the league standings, though they’re considered to be in better position as it pertains to postseason standing.

Part of that can be attributed to Kansas’ 77-58 victory over the Mountaineers back on January 18 at Allen Fieldhouse. KU dominated the second half to overcome a five-point second quarter and 14-point halftime deficit. The Jayhawks outscored West Virginia, 57-24, in the second half to win going away.

Taiyanna Jackson, a 6-foot-6 senior, was critical in KU’s comeback and finished with 13 points, 16 rebounds and three blocks.

“Kansas is very intentional about getting Jackson touches,” Plitzuweit said. “They kind of changed how they got her some looks and touches in the course of that game. If you front her, they can throw it overtop. We have to do a very good job of being able to make adjustments.” 

Still, Jackson scored the least of KU’s four players in double figures. 

Guards Zakiyah Franklin and Wyvette Mayberry had 19 points apiece, while backcourt mate Holly Kersgieter added 16. Franklin also had seven rebounds and half of her team’s 14 assists.

Jackson is KU’s top scorer, rebounder and shot blocker. She’s contributing 15.6 points, 12.3 rebounds and just under three blocks per game, and was named Big 12 Player of the Week on Monday for the second time this season.

“We’ll need to hit some outside shots and some midrange shots,” Nichols said. “Inside may be a little difficult, but if 6-6 [Jackson] is out and the lane is open, take advantage of it when you can.”

Franklin (14.9), Kersgieter (14.4) and Mayberry (11.7) are the Jayhawks other double-figure scorers on average. Franklin leads the team with 74 assists and Kersgieter is tops in three-pointers (44), steals (44) and second in rebounding at 6.5.

Mayberry has missed the team’s last two games while dealing with a back injury.

Kansas is 3-3 since its triumph over the Mountaineers, though the Jayhawks have won two straight after handling TCU at home and knocking off Texas Tech in Lubbock, 78-67.

Jayhawks’ head coach Brandon Schneider has his first opportunity Wednesday to record career victory No. 500 between stops at Division II Emporia State, Stephen F. Austin and Kansas.

Wednesday’s game can be seen on Big 12 Now on ESPN+ and is a designated dollar night, with tickets and select concessions available for $1 each for the final time this season.

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