By Nick Cammuso
Times West Virginian
In a way, West Virginia University’s women’s basketball team has been playing from behind even before the season started.
With high hopes and a Top 25 team back in the fold, plans for a memorable first year in the Big 12 appeared shot when senior center Asya Bussie went down with a season-ending knee injury on the team’s second day of practice in October.
Bussie, after all, was a first-team All-Big East co-captain last season and became the 28th player in program history to score 1,000 career points. But aside from the raw numbers — she shot a team-high 53.2 percent from the field as a junior, averaged 12.1 points a game and added 226 rebounds — Bussie gave WVU veteran leadership and another interior post player needed to compete in the rugged Big 12.
However, the Mountaineers, who were picked second in the Big 12 preseason coaches poll, haven’t used the injury as a crutch. Instead, WVU has tried to adjust with a guard-heavy lineup in an attempt to extend opposing defenses.
“It’s never a good time for that to happen, but at least it happened early,” veteran WVU coach Mike Carey said of Bussie’s injury at Big 12 media days. “That allowed our players to adjust to their roles, and our guards are already being more aggressive.
“We felt good about going into the Big 12 this year with our size and our players in the post, but that stuff happens.”
Even with Bussie out, the Mountaineers return four starters from last year’s team that went 24-10. Two of those players, junior guards Christal Caldwell and Taylor Palmer, averaged double figure scoring.
This season, WVU has spread the wealth.
Palmer leads the team in scoring (10.4 points per game) and 3-pointers (14 of 52) and is shooting 91.7 percent on free throws. Post player Yaya Dunning averages 10.1 points and 6.9 rebounds to help ease the loss of Bussie. And three others — Caldwell (9.1 points), Bria Holmes (7.9) and Crystal Leary (7.4) — have each provided a scoring spark, with the latter two pulling the feat despite not starting a game.
The Mountaineers’ two other starters, Averee Fields and Linda Stepney, average 5.1 and 3.0 points, respectively. Stepney is the team’s starting point guard and assist leader.
The win over Marshall, WVU’s second straight victory after suffering back-to-back losses over LSU and Iowa, wasn’t all positive. Stepney suffered an injury in warmups and was limited to two minutes of action Tuesday against Marshall, and Dunning battled foul trouble.
And Carey wasn’t pleased with his team’s effort at all — despite beating their in-state foes for an eighth straight time — aside from two players in Holmes and Leary.
“I told them, ‘You can be mad at me because I’m mad at you. Two days from now we can kiss and make up, but I’m mad now. I don’t like to be embarrassed,’” he said.
“We didn’t play hard. I told them I was embarrassed, totally embarrassed.”
The up-and-down Marshall victory, which vaults WVU to 5-2 on the season, came two days after Carey’s team impressed in a 54-47 win at Virginia.
“It’s just amazing, against Virginia, couldn’t get a shot off. They had great talent,” he said. “I’ll take the blame. I didn’t have us ready. You can bet your (rear) I’ll have them ready for the next game.
“A college coach shouldn’t have to tell a college player to play hard. I spent the whole time in a timeout telling them were not playing hard.”
WVU is back in action on Saturday when it hosts St. Bonaventure, the first of four home games to close the calendar year. Following the matchup with the Bonnies, the Mountaineers will take on Youngstown State (Dec. 16), Duquesne (Dec. 20) and Appalachian State (Dec. 28). Appy State is coached by East Fairmont graduate Darcie Vincent.
WVU opens its Big 12 schedule Jan. 2 at Oklahoma.
Email Nick Cammuso at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter@NickCammusoTWV.