With the semifinals of the preseason WNIT set for Thursday night, all four teams left in the chase for the title have reason to like their chances. There’s always a question about how rosters will mesh at the start of a season, so if nothing else the squads from Albany, Mississippi State, Western Kentucky and West Virginia are proving to be quick studies.
Semifinal 1: West Virginia at Mississippi State, 7 p.m. CST
West Virginia is ranked 17th in the women’s AP poll and has already proven its mettle in fighting past Seton Hall, 89-87, in the WNIT quarterfinals. In the 25th meeting between the two former Big East foes, Bria Holmes played all 40 minutes and scored 36 points, while Averee Fields filled the box score with totals of 21 points, 15 rebounds and five assists. While those two veterans provided internal strength, redshirt freshman Teana Muldrow hit six 3-pointers and added 19 points. Holmes, the preseason Big 12 player of the year, leads the WNIT in scoring with 59 points.
“I’m proud of the girls. At least we got the win,” said WVU coach Mike Carey. “I’ve said that it’s going to be growing pains as we go, and it is. We just have to get better. We just don’t have the numbers. People get tired and then they start making mistakes. But give our girls a lot of credit.”
Mississippi State has had the least dramatic journey to the semis, beating Arkansas State by 10 points in the quarterfinals. With nine players clocking in as either freshmen or sophomores, the Bulldogs are a bit of a mystery, but both Victoria Vivians and Morgan William (who had 29 points versus Arkansas State) look up to the challenge. And when 6-4 center Martha Alwal fully recovers from an injury that has sidelined her so far, MSU should be able to dictate games inside and outside.
“We are playing with some confidence right now,” William said. “We have a lot to work on, but we are excited about how we have played the first two games.”
The last time West Virginia made it to the preseason WNIT semifinals, it fell to Ohio State in 2009. The Mountaineers lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament this past March. Mississippi State fell in the 2002 preseason WNIT semis to Penn State; the Bulldogs reached the quarterfinals of the postseason WNIT last March, but fell short on a last-second shot by South Florida.
Semifinal 2: Albany at Western Kentucky, 7 p.m. CST
Albany’s recent success in the America East Conference may be under the radar for some, but the Great Danes fit the profile of a team that has been together a while and doesn’t seem to get rattled. Albany went into Penn State and eked out a 54-53 upset win in the quarterfinals – Shereesha Richards bulldozed her way to 27 points, while 5-8 sophomore guard Imani Tate has been a beast on the boards, totaling 24 rebounds over two contests.
“I'm very proud of my team. They came in here with no fear, and that was what we wanted to do,” said Albany coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson. “We are returning four starters and our freshmen played really well for us tonight. They are workhorses. They are fighters. As a coach, that's what you want from a team - workhorses and no fear. They stayed poised in front of a tough crowd.”
Western Kentucky hit the road and needed a few breaks to survive a quarterfinal overtime scuffle at Colorado, but the 79-78 victory further proves the Hilltoppers are a strong mid-major program. Chastity Gooch came through with 30 points and 11 rebounds in the victory as WKU fought back from a four-point deficit in overtime to prevail – despite going just 4-of-30 from 3-point range, the Hilltoppers made up for it on the other end by forcing 24 CU turnovers.
“I told them at halftime that I was proud of how they kept going to the boards and just kept working,” said WKU coach Michelle Clark-Heard. “We had turnovers, but some of those were passes that we didn’t get our hands on or we made a good pass or it might have been too hard. I’m really ecstatic for our kids because they followed the game plan perfectly, everything we told them to do.”
This is Albany’s first time in the preseason WNIT. For Western Kentucky, this marks the fourth time in the event but the first since 2007; it’s also the second time the Hilltoppers have reached the semis.