The Mountaineer women’s basketball team has put together the final pieces of its 2020-21 regular season schedule.
WVU opens its campaign in Las Vegas in the South Point Thanksgiving Shootout where it will play a pair of games, first facing Fresno State on Friday, Nov. 27 and then LSU on Saturday, Nov. 28. Those games will be played at the South Point Hotel & Casino, which is on the south end of Vegas.
West Virginia’s first home game will take place on Thursday, Dec. 3 when it entertains North Alabama at the WVU Coliseum.
“It’s been hectic,” admitted Mountaineer head coach Mike Carey of putting together a schedule with all the coronavirus-related NCAA changes this year. “We had a couple drop us, but we’re complete now.”
Starting the season in Las Vegas would typically be fun, but this is far from a typical year.
“Normally it would be (enjoyable),” chuckled Carey, who is preparing for his 20th season as the Mountaineers’ head coach and holds a 410-217 record in that time, “but we’re going to be in a bubble in the hotel. We’ll be tested and can’t leave the hotel. We even have to eat at the hotel.
“Normally that would be a great place to start out, but Vegas is not going to be Vegas on this trip. It’s just going to be two games.”
The remainder of WVU’s non-conference slate includes a Big 12/SEC Challenge affair against Tennessee in Morgantown on Sunday, Dec. 6, as well as home games against James Madison on Sun., Dec. 13, Ohio University on Sunday, Dec. 20 and Coppin State on Tuesday, Dec. 22.
West Virginia will also play a couple of early season Big 12 games in December, featuring a Thursday, Dec. 10 battle at the WVU Coliseum with No. 3 Baylor followed by a Friday, Dec. 18 trip to Oklahoma State.
The remainder of the Mountaineers’ regular season conference games will be played in January and February. Their regular season finale is slated for Wednesday, Feb. 24 at Iowa State, but the Big 12 has built in a two-week buffer between the end of the regular season and the start of the league’s tournament in Kansas City (March 11-14) to allow for make-up opportunities for any games that have to be postponed because of COVID.
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West Virginia is about a month into its full-scale practices, but Carey’s crew has been short-handed for some of those workouts.
“Practice has been going pretty good, but all the sudden we’ve been having some flu-like things – strep throat and things like that,” the veteran coach noted. “So, you don’t know who you are going to have in practice every day. We did have a couple ladies get tested (for COVID-19) recently. They were negative, but every time someone gets sick with anything, they have to be tested, and they are out a couple days until the test results come back.
“We’re not real consistent with who is in practice daily, but that’s just the way it is going to be all year.
“We are practicing hard. We need continue getting better.”
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Six of WVU’s top seven scorers from last year return for the 2020-21 season, as the only departure came with the graduation of Tynice Martin.
But as much as Carey expects to depend on the backcourt of senior Kysre Gondrezick (15.3 points per game last season), junior Madisen Smith (7.0 points and 3.0 assists per game) and sophomore K.K. Deans (5.4 points per game), as well as forwards junior Kari Niblack (10.3 points and 6.9 rebounds per game) and sophomore Esmery Martinez (5.4 points and 6.8 rebounds per game), it’s the improved skill and depth in the post that has the coach especially excited.
Rochelle Norris, a 6-foot-5 sophomore who averaged 3.5 points and 4.2 rebounds last season, and Blessing Ejiofor, a 6-foot-5 senior who averaged 2.1 points and 5.0 rebounds in 2019-20, split time at the center position last year.
To that pair of posts, WVU has added Ariel Cummings, a 6-foot-3 junior from Chipola (Fla.) Community College, and JeAnna Cunningham, a 6-foot-4 freshman from Brentwood, New York.
“I think they are more comfortable now,” Carey said of the returning duo of centers in Norris and Ejiofor. “They are finishing better. They are sitting down in the post and calling for the ball. They have more confidence and want the ball more. Defensively they understand what we want to do. I think they are both much improved.
“Once Ariel learns what we’re doing, she also has a chance to really help,” continued Carey. “She’s very athletic and has great size.
“JeAnna is someone we’re playing at both the five and the four. She’s a typical freshman in that she is having a little bit of trouble with what we’re doing defensively and all that, but she’ll continue to get better.”
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Twelve WVU’s 13 players are ready to go for this coming season.
Jasmine Carson, a 5-foot-10 junior, is the only member of the 2020-21 squad who remains in limbo.
A transfer from Georgia Tech, Carson is still awaiting a decision from the NCAA on a waiver to allow her to play immediately this year.
Another recent transfer, 5-foot-11 sophomore Jayla Hemmingway, did receive clearance from the NCAA to play this season for the Mountaineers after transferring from Mississippi State to West Virginia this summer.