BATON ROUGE, La. — For a team that has consistently found ways to win this season, Sunday’s first-round NCAA women’s basketball tournament game appeared to have given second-seeded West Virginia a chance to need little searching for a winning formula.
Instead, West Virginia squandered most of a 17-point halftime lead before righting itself, and finishing off a feisty Albany squad, 76-61, at LSU’s Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
Showing mettle worthy of perhaps a higher seeding, the 15th-seeded Great Danes (28-5) pulled to within 56-51 with seven minutes left to play. West Virginia (30-4) responded with a 16-6 run to put the game out of reach at 72-57 with 1:02 left.
The win advances West Virginia into Tuesday night’s second round to face No. 7 LSU, a 98-78 winner over No. 10 Georgia Tech. The win also helped the Mountaineers break the school record for victories, but coach Mike Carey thinks a repeat performance won’t be good enough.
“Nothing against Albany, but if we play like that (again) LSU will beat us,” Carey said. ”Its going to have to be a 40-minute game, 40 minutes of concentrating, attacking and playing our defense.”
Christal Caldwell topped the Mountaineers with 26 points while Bria Holmes (20) and Averee Fields (10) also hit double figures. Working against 6-foot-9 Albany center Megan Craig, Asya Bussie managed just three points but grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds.
West Virginia had trouble dealing with the height of Craig, who tallied 23 to lead Albany. In the second half, the Mountaineers worked on pushing Craig farther away from the basket forcing her to make tougher shots.
The only other Great Dane to notch double digits was Sarah Royals with 10. The Mountaineers held America East Player of the Year Shereesha Richards to nine points.
Albany struggled at the free throw line, where it missed the front end of three one-and-one chances. The Great Danes finished 14 of 29 at the free throw line compared to West Virginia’s 25 of 34.
“I think we were a 15 seed because we lost some games we shouldn’t have, but talent-wise and competitive-wise we weren’t,” Albany coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson said. “West Virginia is a great team, but what it showed to our kids is that we can play against anybody at any time.”
West Virginia took control in the first half after it held a 13-9 lead at the 14:29 mark. Showing no rust from the two-week break since the Big 12 tournament final, West Virginia then went on a 20-2 run.
Holmes scored seven during the run, and Caldwell had eight including two 3-pointers. Most of the run came while Craig, who picked up her second foul with 12:44 left, was on the bench.
By the time Craig re-entered, the West Virginia lead was 33-11 with 6:27 to go in the half. The lead was 42-25 at the break, but Albany used a pressing defense to work its way back in the second half.
Royals fed Richards for a basket to cut the WVU lead to 46-37 with 13:35 left, the first time Albany had the lead under 10 since the 11:06 mark in the first half. The Mountaineers pushed the lead back to 56-42 on Jess Harlee’s bucket, but the Albany press began to take a toll.
The Great Danes forced turnovers on four consecutive possessions and scored nine consecutive points. Margarita Rosario’s 3-pointer and Royals’ three-point play were the key baskets.
“It was mostly us not being focused or letting them get us under pressure because we had worked on it in our scout,” Holmes said of the Albany press. “It was more of us not attacking as much.”
Caldwell’s driving layup ended the run, and she hit a jumper a minute later for a 60-51 lead. The Mountaineer made 14 of 19 free throws down the stretch to put away Albany.
“I’d rather win ugly than lose pretty,” Carey said. “Our team understands that when we’re not playing well we still have to play defense and rebound. If we’re not scoring we can’t let them score.”