By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
All too often they are overlooked in sports, no matter which it may be, the players who fail to make it into the starting lineup and make up what is referred to as the bench.
It carries a derogatory connotation, as in a coach warning a player that if he doesn’t play better, “I will bench you.”
When you are on the bench you are a reserve, a backup ... or maybe you might just win a game or two or more for your team, as West Virginia University’s women’s bench players did Sunday as they turned around what had started out to be a disastrous afternoon and rallied the Mountaineers to an important 82-63 victory over No. 21/20 Oklahoma.
The victory before a crowd of 3,153 at the Coliseum on Play4Kay Day, a game played to benefit the fight against breast cancer, was WVU’s second consecutive one over a ranked team after having lost four in a row to ranked teams earlier in the season.
“Needless to say, this was a big win,” said WVU coach Mike Carey, whose team reached .500 in the Big 12 at 5-5 while stretching the season record to 13-8 as it fights to gain a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
It was a big win thanks to the bench, which came on to outscore the Sooner bench by a 40-5 margin.
Starter Christal Caldwell had a big day, leading in scoring with 24 points, but freshman Bria Homes came off the bench to add 17 points in just 13 minutes of play, while Jess Harlee brought boundless energy into the game when it was badly needed, scoring 12 points, pulling down nine rebounds and making three steals.
The bench performance was necessary in part because Taylor Palmer had just a terrible time of it. The leading scorer in the first game against Oklahoma with 30 points in what was a disappointing loss, Palmer had two fouls within the first 2:30 of the game, wound up playing just five minutes and took only one shot.
Perhaps it was just one of those days, perhaps her mind was elsewhere for this was Super Bowl Sunday and her sister, Janay, is engaged to Ray Rice, the Baltimore Ravens running back, and the mother of his child. She and the rest of the Palmer family were in New Orleans while Taylor was stuck trying to concentrate on this game.
“We knew (after she scored 30 points in the first meeting with Oklahoma) that they would stay out on her,” Carey said of having her stay on the bench in foul trouble. “I felt we needed taller people in there. They were pressing. They weren’t going to let her shoot.”
And while Taylor Palmer is one of the top scorers on the team, Carey has reached a point in this season where he isn’t worrying about hurt feelings.
“I’m not worrying about feelings,” he said. “We have got to win games.”
That meant pulling all the stops, especially when Oklahoma came out and did whatever it wanted to do in building a 22-11 lead.
That was when Carey changed his approach, put Holmes into the game along with Harlee.
Harlee, who has size, was assigned to guard Aaryn Ellenberg, who had scored six points in the first 2 1/2 minutes.
She would score only six more the rest of the game.
And from that point on WVU would go off on a 23-5 run to lead 34-27 at the half.
That run started with Holmes hitting a basket and then Caldwell scoring on a fast break from backup point guard Brooke Hampton, who came on to replace Linda Stepney and who added five assists and a 3-point basket during her 14 minutes of playing time.
Holmes took complete charge at that point, stealing and scoring on a fast break, then coming out of an Oklahoma timeout and scoring two more baskets to draw WVU within a point at 22-21.
Caldwell then saw to it that the Mountaineers would be in charge at the half as she scored four consecutive baskets, one of them a 3-point shot.
The second half was simply a matter of WVU pushing and pushing, building the lead until Oklahoma simply had to submit.
“We’re not playing not to lose anymore,” Carey said. “We are going to keep attacking, keep playing.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.