The new kid on the block

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- This is heady stuff for Coach Mike Carey and his West Virginia Mountaineers women's basketball team. Unbeaten, nationally ranked at No. 16 or No. 20, depending upon which poll you believe, playing in the state capital against a team they have heard a little bit about -- Tennessee.

This is the defending national champions, the No. 1 team in the nation, a team that is willing to go on the road to play another nationally ranked team, just to showcase hometown talent Alexis Hornbuckle, whom Pat Summitt took out of the state after she led two different schools, Capital and South Charleston, to four consecutive state titles.

Only running out of eligibility kept her from winning a fifth.

Summitt recalls the days she came into West Virginia, how she attended services at Hornbuckle's father's church, dined at her home and watched her play her game.

“I remember coming to watch her one game, and I don’t remember the name of the school it was at, but it was just packed with people,” Summitt said, recalling a fall 2002 game played at the South Charleston Community Center. "I'm glad they saved a couple of seats."

There is more than Hornbuckle, however, that ties this game to West Virginia.On March 19, 2006, Tennessee's Candace Parker made college basketball history when she became the first woman to dunk in an NCAA championship game and to tunk twice in one day.

It was a big deal. Or was it?

Let's go back not 10 years, nogt evben 20 years, butr almost 22 years to a December night in Elkins, W.Va., at the Randolph County Armory during the Mountaineer Christmas Classic when Georgeann Wells of WVU took a pass from Lisa Ribble on a breakaway against Morris Harvey, skied through the air and became the first woman to ever dunk in a college basketball game.

"It was a planned deal," the 6-7 Wells said in October when she was inducted into the WVU Athletic Hall of Fame. "We knew it was going to happen eventually. We just didn't know when."

And so you have West Virginia, where the first woman dunked, and you have the spectacular Parker, the first to dunk in an NCAA Tournament game, representing the two schools.

Tennessee, of course, has long been a dominant force in women's basketball. Not so for West Virginia, which fell on such hard times in the late 1990s that it actually lost to Connecticut 100-28.

There were worries that last year might be another of those years when the Mountaineers' star, Meg Bulger, went out with a second knee injury. But this was a team that was just beginning to grow.

Improvement is what it has been all about at West Virginia. A year ago the Mountaineers opened the season at LSU and went through a humbling defeat, scoring only 25 points in the entire game while losing by 39.

Who could have guessed that WVU would make it all the way to the NCAA Tournament's second round, where they were eliminated by that same LSU team.

But this was a different game. LSU won but by six points, 49-43.

Bulger is now back, coming off the bench as the "sixth man", and WVU, like Tennessee, is 3-0.

"We're lookikng forward to the game," said Carey, who has turned around WVU's fortunes. "Win or lose, it's a great game for us. If we take care of the basketball and rebound, we'll have a great opportunity."

WVU played Tennessee last year and lost 66-51.

"Except for the first eight minutes, we played pretty even with them," Carey said. "We're improved in some areas. We're going to play hard. We shouldn't be intimidated."

Summitt understand that.

“Defending the West Virginia team in the halfcourt is going to be a top priority with us. They’ve got great balance and great size,” she said, then added, "And they've got toughness."

"They've got toughness."

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