Not much has gone right so far for the West Virginia University women’s basketball team. After a program-best 30-5 performance last season, the Mountaineers were expected to once again contend for the Big 12 title this season.Then they started out 0-4 in conference play. For a lot of teams, this would be the end. But the Mountaineers have picked up their play a bit in recent weeks, and although they sit at 3-6 halfway through Big 12 competition, they’re still a team that’s equipped to make a run.
The main reason for West Virginia’s conference woes was a major lack of depth – but with the emergence of Lanay Montgomery, Bre McDonald and Jessica Morton, the Mountaineers are suddenly looking like a team with multiple options.
In West Virginia’s three conference wins this season, neither of the team’s two leading scorers, junior guard Bria Holmes and senior forward Averee Fields, has topped the team in points. Those honors went to McDonald, who scored 16 against Oklahoma State and 19 against Oklahoma, and Morton, who led the way with 22 against Kansas State.
Most importantly, the addition of McDonald and Morton’s scoring has allowed the Mountaineers to weather Holmes’ long shooting slump. Morton did not make her debut until West Virginia’s fourth conference game, and McDonald did not break into the starting lineup, until shortly afterward.
Morton has been a revelation, and her 3-point shooting acumen has been badly needed. McDonald is averaging almost 14 points per game in starts, and the Mountaineers are 3-1 in games where the Georgia Tech transfer is part of the starting lineup. Meanwhile, center Lanay Montgomery has stepped up to be the team’s interior anchor, and one of the very best shotblockers in Division I.
No longer is West Virginia a two-woman team. McDonald and Morton have established themselves as reliable offensive options. Meanwhile, Fields continues to quietly and consistently produce every night, and it seems only a matter of time before Holmes, the Big 12 Preseason Player of the Year, breaks out of her offensive funk. If the offense can begin to fire on all cylinders, West Virginia will become a very tough matchup.
Despite its tough start, West Virginia has already claimed wins over two ranked teams in conference play, beating No. 20 Oklahoma State two weeks ago and No. 24 Oklahoma on Sunday. They also played Texas and Baylor very closely, teams both ranked in the top five at the time of their meetings with the Mountaineers.
Texas has since dropped off, leaving No. 3 Baylor as the undisputed alpha dog of the conference. At 3-6, West Virginia likely needs to win at least six or seven of their final nine conference games to have a shot at the NCAA Tournament.
A road date with Baylor on Feb. 15 looms large on the schedule, and in a deep Big 12 Conference where almost every team can win on any night, it will be an incredibly tough gauntlet for the Mountaineers to run. But now at least they might have the depth to survive.