West Virginia Baylor Basketball

WVU women’s coach Mike Carey

No one really would have blamed Mike Carey if WVU’s women’s basketball team stumbled through the middle of its season. The Mountaineers spent more than a month without one starter. They haven’t had another since the fifth game of the season.

But that’s the thing about Carey’s crew. No matter what gets thrown at them, they often find a way to rally. This season has been no different, and it’s shaping up to be one of their best as members of the Big 12.

Sure, WVU stumbled against Oklahoma on Saturday, but before that setback, the Mountaineers had won seven of their last eight and 10 of their last 12. And, remember, that was without two starters.

Ten of those games, from Jan. 13 to Feb. 16, were without senior guard Katrina Pardee. Her ankle injury robbed the Mountaineers of a veteran who, at the time, was scoring 13 points per game.

It’s been even longer since redshirt sophomore guard Kysre Gondrezick has been off the floor. She has been gone since before Christmas, playing in five games, starting four and averaging 13.2 points before departing for personal reasons.

So if you’re scoring at home, that’s one four-year starter out for double-digit games and a former All-Big Ten second-teamer at Michigan gone since Santa was taking toy orders at the mall. West Virginia has been, for most of this season, working with eight active players. For most teams, that is not a formula for victory.

But this team sits one win away from its sixth straight season with at least 20 wins and is on a two-game trip this week to Kansas State and Kansas, teams the Mountaineers beat by 30 and 21 points, respectively, the first time around.

So how does West Virginia keep rolling? Because Carey has gotten this Mountaineer team to a point that many others envy — the idea isn’t to rebuild, but to reload.

Two of the three starting guards these days are newcomers. Madisen Smith is a freshman and Lucky Rudd is a transfer from North Carolina State who couldn’t take the court until the second semester. Smith has been named Big 12 Freshman of the Week three times this season and National Freshman of the Week once. Her 4.2 assists per game top the Mountaineers and rank fifth in the Big 12.

Rudd has played in all 19 games since becoming eligible, starting 13, including the last 12 straight. She has been a boost as well, with seven games in double figures.

Add to that another solid freshman in Kari Niblack, a top-100 recruit who comes off the bench to rank second on the team with 6.8 rebounds per game. And there are WVU’s two stalwarts, Tynice Martin and Naomi Davenport. Martin is the team’s top scorer at 17.8 points per game and on her way to another All-Big 12 first-team nod. Davenport leads the team in rebounding with 7.8 per game and is on the cusp of 1,000 career points at WVU.

If WVU can knock off Kansas and Kansas State this week (the Mountaineers close their regular season at home against unanimous No. 1 Baylor on March 4) that would give West Virginia 12 Big 12 wins, just the third time since joining the league in 2012 that the Mountaineers reached that mark.

It’s what Carey thought at the beginning of the season that his team could do — kind of.

“In terms of record [yes], but it’s not how I envisioned the season going,” Carey told reporters last Friday. “We’ve had a lot of things happen throughout the year, whether it’s nutrition or injuries or that type of stuff. Right now, we’re with eight players, so that’s really not how I envisioned it at the end of the year.

“But it is what it is,” he added, “and the eight players who are here have done a great job.”

ESPN.com’s latest women’s bracketology prediction has West Virginia among the first four team’s out of the NCAA tournament. But a couple of wins this week, a solid showing against Baylor and a couple of wins in the Big 12 tournament could put the Mountaineers back in the field.

Considering everything that has happened in this campaign, that’s a pretty good spot the Mountaineers find themselves in. Even if they just miss the tournament, while they may not feel satisfied, they have every right to be proud.

Contact Derek Redd at 304-348-1712 or derek.redd@wvgazettemail.com. Follow him on Twitter @derekredd.