West Virginia peaks at right time, knocks off perennial power Baylor for Big 12 title

OKLAHOMA CITY -- There wasn't a bigger upset in the Power 5 women's basketball conference tournaments than No. 6 seed West Virginia's 77-66 victory over Baylor on Monday in the Big 12 title game.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a bigger one in the history of the Big 12 final, which dates to 1997. The only one that matches this came in 2004, when No. 6 seed Oklahoma beat No. 1 Texas.

Back then, there really were 12 teams in the Big 12 -- now there are 10 -- so the Sooners had to play four games to get their title, while West Virginia played three. But both beat the top three seeds to do so.

It's fair to say no one was expecting this. West Virginia went 8-10 in the Big 12 and was 4-4 in February. But the Mountaineers are 3-0 in March and 23-10 overall, and they won an NCAA tournament automatic berth.

"We had to peak now, or we wouldn't be going to the tournament," West Virginia coach Mike Carey said, adding that he was optimistic enough about the Mountaineers' sticking around that he brought three shirts to the Big 12 tournament.

"But only two suits," he said, grinning. "At least I didn't have to go to the cleaners on this trip."

Despite the loss, Baylor is still almost certain to be a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. The Lady Bears are 30-3, and the teams that might have overtaken them -- Mississippi State (SEC) and Oregon State (Pac-12) -- also lost their league tournament finals.

Baylor has to be concerned about two things: The Lady Bears played somewhat lethargically in the first quarter, which put them in a hole they never got out of, and didn't have an answer for how to deal with a dynamic guard such as West Virginia's Tynice Martin. That's troubling if they encounter someone similar to her again, especially if Baylor senior guard Alexis Jones, who has been out since Feb. 20 with a bone bruise, is unavailable.

"She worked out today," Baylor coach Kim Mulkey said of Jones, who averages 13.9 points and 4.9 rebounds and is valuable for her perimeter defense. "She was on the floor with the ball and says her knee is feeling better.

"I'm hoping we have done the right thing by [letting] her rest until the most important part, and that's the NCAA tournament. I hope she can give us valuable time during the tournament."

Martin, who scored 32 points Monday and 82 in the three games and was named tournament MVP, is just a sophomore.

"Very few times in 31 years of coaching can I think of one player who took her team on her shoulders and won three games," Mulkey said. "Tynice Martin did that."

The Mountaineers are 11-1 this season when Martin scores at least 20 points. The Big 12 freshman of the year last season, Martin was the heir apparent to the void left by West Virginia's Bria Holmes, who finished her college career last season and is now with the WNBA's Atlanta Dream.

"She has a great 3-point shot and a great midrange shot," Carey said of Martin. "Now she has to figure out how to attack the rim. She can't just jump over people in college like she did in high school. She has to learn how to get around secondary defense and finish. Once she does that -- whew, she's going to be really, really good."

Martin is from Atlanta. Carey said the Mountaineers formed a strong connection with her and her family -- her father, Terry Martin, played hoops at Auburn -- and that's how she ended up in Morgantown, West Virginia.

Recruiting, though, is one of the many things that had to change for West Virginia with the move to the Big 12 in 2012-13.

"We tried to start going more Midwest and Texas a little bit," Carey said. "But of course, there's a lot of schools between us and those places. So we've kind of gone back to East Coast, for now, and we've had some success there."

The conference realignments of the past decade created some "orphans" -- schools far, far away from the heartbeat of their conferences. Perhaps no school feels that more than West Virginia.

The Mountaineers' closest conference foe is Iowa State, about 840 miles away. Morgantown is 1,216 miles from Irving, Texas, where the Big 12 office is. On Monday, the Mountaineers were playing the Big 12 final in Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, 1,118 miles from their home gym, WVU Coliseum.

Admittedly, when the Mountaineers were in the Big East -- from 1995-96 to 2011-12 -- the league tournament wasn't around the corner, either. It was about 500 miles away when the event was in Connecticut and 350 when it was in New Jersey. Still, that's a lot closer than now. Plus, the Mountaineers used to have practically a next-door neighbor as a conference rival, with Pittsburgh 75 miles to the north.

But the Big 12 is the Mountaineers' home now. If it means they don't have a huge number of fans who can come to the Big 12 tournament or league road games, then that's just the way it is.

"I don't want any of our players or staff to ever use that as an excuse," Carey said. "We've just got to play that way."

"Very few times in 31 years of coaching can I think of one player who took her team on her shoulders and won three games. Tynice Martin did that." Baylor coach Kim Mulkey

Carey's pragmatic approach to things is something Mulkey said she admires. As disappointed as she was to lose Monday, she said she was happy for Carey.

"Mike and I talk the same language. He's not petty -- he just wants to coach," Mulkey said. "He's not into who his best friends are. I just enjoy visiting with him. I think he teaches man-to-man defense as good as anybody I've ever coached against, and I just love that."

Whether Mulkey meant her compliment for Carey to double as a jab at anyone else is up for speculation. Since her controversial remarks on Feb. 25 after Baylor clinched the Big 12 regular-season title -- comments she subsequently apologized for -- Mulkey might feel that all her words are being overly scrutinized.

When asked if she were happy about the resolve her players showed to cut West Virginia's lead to four late in the game, Mulkey said, "I expected them to ... well, I better use a better word than 'fight.' I expected them to play hard. That's all we know. They didn't just sit back and feel sorry for themselves."

Still, Mulkey was disappointed that the Lady Bears as a group didn't show that effort from the start and indicated that certain players -- she didn't say exactly who -- didn't play up to their potential on Monday.

"Some people need to do some soul-searching on our bench when they go into a game," Mulkey said. "Is the moment too big for you?"

Baylor will enter the NCAA tournament off a loss for the first time since 2010; the Lady Bears had won the past six Big 12 tourney titles. West Virginia -- which, as Carey said, came to Oklahoma City unsure of even playing in the Big Dance -- now goes in with a full head of steam.

West Virginia had won just one conference tournament before, in 1989, when the Mountaineers were in the Atlantic 10 and still coached by Kittie Blakemore, who founded West Virginia's program in 1973. Carey took over the program in the 2001-02 season and now will go to the NCAA tournament for the 10th time.

"There are no pro teams in our state, so there's a lot of pride in the Mountaineers in West Virginia," Carey said. "We don't get a lot of fans here [in Oklahoma City], but you know what? The fans we had here we really appreciate. When the game was over, they were singing 'Country Roads,' and that's all that mattered."