No matter the numbers she put up or the attention she drew on the basketball court, Bria Holmes never totally understood the shadow she cast upon the opposition.
Winning a ton of games in high school and drawing the recruiting eye of the nation’s top programs certainly gave Holmes a clue, but it’s taken a couple of seasons at West Virginia and time in the film room for her to gain that broader perspective.
The tale of the tape says this much – a 6-foot-1 guard with killer instincts and superb body control is going to be useful. Holmes earned all-Big 12 first-team honors in 2013-14 as a sophomore by averaging better than 15 points per game for the Mountaineers, and she’s already moving up in profile by being named the preseason Big 12 player of the year.
With Holmes at the helm, West Virginia is planning on a quick bounce-back after last year’s upset loss to LSU in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The Mountaineers had a good thing cooking before the abrupt finish, going 30-5 overall and claiming a No. 2 seed after earning a share of the Big 12 conference title.
Holmes was hotly recruited by the likes of Rutgers and Connecticut, and the ebbs and flows of that process were picked apart in the local media and internet message boards. As she prepares for another year of being her team’s focal point, Holmes is a bit more at peace.
“I really never knew how good I could be. I never watched film in high school, and I never saw what others saw,” she said. “Now, I can see what I’m capable of doing. It’s a little easier (than the recruiting grind), but not a lot easier. I still feel like there’s a lot of pressure on me to prove people were right. I will just have to have confidence in myself, not add to the pressure, and just play basketball the way I can.”
West Virginia will need Holmes at her sharpest, but with the exit of five seniors and a comparatively thin roster of 10 players, there’s much more for head coach Mike Carey to nurture and monitor. It’s enough to make a guy bolt up in the middle of the night, fretting over all that needs to be done.
“That just didn’t happen in the summer – it happened last night, too,” joked Carey, last year’s Big 12 coach of the year and who has guided the Mountaineers to the NCAA Tournament in eight of the past 11 seasons. “Everything is on the learning curve, and we can’t go too fast. I’m the type of coach who says, if we’re not doing something well, we’re not going to go forward until we fix it. We look good for two minutes, then for two minutes like we don’t know what we’re doing.
“The people who are back will need to step it up and make plays. We’re a little short-handed, but I’ve had teams with eight players that won 20 games, so it can be done.”
As Holmes prepares for her own expanded role, it’s the same priority for the other returners. Linda Stepney will be starting at point guard for the fourth season; fellow senior Averee Fields must build upon her natural gifts as a rebounder; and senior Crystal Leary hopes to be a reliable offensive presence after topping 50 percent as a shooter last season.
“Just how hard the seniors worked last year, the leadership they showed, is something I do reference with this team,” Carey said. “You can’t beat experience. Linda has the most experience of anybody; we need her to set the tone defensively, to be at that level at all times, and we’ll need her to score more. We don’t have the scorers we had last year.”
Will Holmes find a way to approach the 20-points-per-game threshold while guiding the retooled roster in a tough conference? It’s a lot to ask, but Holmes prefers doing the work to keep the Mountaineers from slogging through the classic “rebuilding” year. She said she spent a lot of the summer working through the upset loss to LSU and then fortifying her ball-handling skills and shooting off her dribble.
“Last year, losing in the second round was a big downfall, and it took a while to get over it. It’s a lesson learned, that we have to come out and play 10 times harder,” Holmes said. “Coach wants me to be more vocal, without getting too frustrated, so I’m going to express my feelings.”