March 26, 2024 

How West Virginia’s ‘tremendous and special’ defense nearly knocked off Iowa in the NCAA Tournament

Mark Kellogg, the Mountaineers’ third coach in three years, nearly led the program to the Sweet 16

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Entering the 2023-24 season, the West Virginia program was adjusting to its third coach in three seasons. Fast forward to Monday, and the Mountaineers nearly toppled a giant in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

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The Mountaineers were the only team with a first-year head coach to make the second round this season, and they almost advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1992, when the tournament only had 48 teams. They fell to No. 1 seed Iowa 64-54, despite tying the score three times in the fourth quarter.

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The coaching turnover began in March 2022, when longtime head coach Mike Carey announced his retirement after a 15-15 season. Dawn Plitzuweit took over and got the Mountaineers back to the NCAA Tournament, where they lost in the first round. Then she left for Minnesota, and Mark Kellogg took the reins in April 2023.

When Kellogg arrived, he had to get buy-in from the team. “I had my doubts in the beginning, like everyone with a new coach, new teammates,” fifth-year guard Jayla Hemingway told reporters on Sunday. “Everyone was kind of skeptical at first. But I think that we all kind of bought into the system and just kind of bought into each other.”

Kellogg’s goal was to get the Mountaineers back to the postseason immediately. He installed a system that combined elements of the pressure defense Carey had espoused and the motion offense and halfcourt defense Plitzuweit had favored. That happened to fit how Kellogg had coached at past stops, and “it fit really early” with the players, he told reporters on Sunday.

“As a group, I think we all collectively just love playing defense,” junior guard JJ Quinerly said before the team’s first-round win over Princeton, “and then him bringing in that pressure [for] 40 minutes just made us even more … ready to go out there and play.”

Kellogg led West Virginia to a 25-8 overall record and a fourth-place tie in the Big 12 at 12-6. The Mountaineers started 13-0 with wins over Kansas and Penn State, and they rattled off seven straight wins in Big 12 play. Though they lost three of their last four regular-season games, they advanced to the quarterfinals of the Big 12 Tournament and played some of their best basketball in the NCAA Tournament.

The defense led the way for the Mountaineers, as they finished the season ranked second nationally in turnovers forced per game and fourth in points allowed per 100 possessions. Led by Quinerly and sophomore guard Jordan Harrison, the Mountaineers used multiple full-court presses and consistent pressure in the half court to fluster opponents.

Although they averaged one of the faster paces in the country, they didn’t have to play that way. Instead, their press allowed them to play any pace they wanted.

“I’ve always wanted to win multiple ways,” Kellogg said after Monday’s game. “So if we need to play fast, we can. If we need to grind out a half-quarter like tonight, then we need to be able to do that.”

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West Virginia was given a No. 8 seed in the NCAA Tournament, which both Kellogg and Iowa head coach Lisa Bluder balked at. Kellogg referenced his surprise multiple times during the first two rounds, and Bluder suggested on Sunday that the Mountaineers could’ve been as high as a No. 5 seed. 

“No one wants to give us, it doesn’t feel like, a whole lot of credit,” Kellogg said on Monday. “… I don’t think we were [a No.] 8 seed. I don’t think we got all the credit we deserved through the regular season. Our kids have battled. We’ve been one of the best defensive teams in the country. I’m glad tonight we got to showcase that so maybe people will start to understand what we are and what we’re about.”

West Virginia proved its mettle in both games over the weekend, turning up its pressure in the second half to beat Princeton on Saturday and then giving Iowa all it could handle on Monday.

Monday’s game began ominously, as Quinerly, West Virginia’s All-American and leading scorer, picked up a foul on the first possession. But then the Mountaineers got a block and forced a turnover to take a 5-0 lead.

The Mountaineers’ press forced five Iowa turnovers in the first quarter, but when the Hawkeyes weren’t turning the ball over, they often were scoring. They shot 53.8% from the field en route to a 20-15 lead.

Then West Virginia clamped down defensively, allowing just six Iowa points in the second quarter to pull within two at half. 

Iowa outscored West Virginia 22-14 in the third quarter, leading by as many as 12 and by 10 entering the final frame. But West Virginia clawed back to tie the game at 48, and 50, and 52. It just never could get over the hump and retake the lead.

That was in part due to fouls: The Mountaineers committed more than twice as many fouls as Iowa (27-11) and sent the Hawkeyes to the free-throw line 30 times.

For instance, Hemingway picked up her third and fourth fouls in a nine-second span early in the fourth quarter. Frustrated, she blew a kiss to the crowd as she checked out, eliciting boos. About 90 seconds later, she checked back in — and soon hit the 3-pointer that tied the game at 48.

But on the next possession, Quinerly fouled Iowa junior guard Sydney Affolter, and she converted two free throws to regain the lead. Quinerly later fouled out, bookending her night with a pair of whistles.

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In the end, West Virginia didn’t get the win, but it slowed down the Hawkeyes’ offense more than most people thought possible. It held Iowa 28 points below its average, and only four Hawkeyes scored at all. In the fourth quarter, Iowa made just one field goal — an and-one by Affolter that broke the 52-all tie — and got 14 of its 16 points from free throws.

“That defensive effort tonight was, I thought, tremendous and special,” Kellogg said afterward. “… It was just a full team effort on the best offensive team in the country.”

West Virginia only forced Iowa into 15 total turnovers, the fewest it had forced in a game all season and well below its average of 23.6 per game. The Mountaineers didn’t shoot very well, either, at just 33.9% from the field and 26.5% from 3-point range.

They hung in with Iowa by slowing the game down — both by limiting possessions overall and by pressuring the ball enough to slow Iowa’s vaunted ball movement on each possession. The Hawkeyes finished with just seven assists, one-third of their season average.

“Your defense moves as the ball moves, of course,” Kellogg explained on Sunday. “So if we can slow the ball down a little bit, that gives us an advantage.”

Iowa was led by star guard Caitlin Clark’s 32 points, but she shot just 8-for-22 from the field (and 11-for-12 from the free-throw line) and had six turnovers.

Quinerly finished with 15 points on 6-for-14 shooting and three steals. In the postgame press conference, she was asked about the individual battle between her and Clark.

“It was amazing,” she said. “I think a lot of people would take that opportunity as a golden opportunity … to either beat the best player in the world or go toe-to-toe with her and compete all 40 minutes. That’s what we did the whole game, competed the whole time, and nobody can take this away from us.”

West Virginia guard JJ Quinerly dribbles the ball away from two Iowa players with her left hand.
West Virginia guard JJ Quinerly (11) controls the ball as Iowa guard Caitlin Clark (22) looks on during a second-round NCAA Tournament game at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Iowa, on March 25, 2024. (Photo credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports)

What made the Mountaineers’ performance even more impressive was that it came in Iowa’s home arena, in an almost literal “us against the world” situation. The 14,324 fans in attendance comprised the largest crowd at any NCAA Tournament host site this season, and it seemed likely that 14,000 of them were Iowa fans. It wasn’t just any game, either, or any NCAA Tournament game: It was Clark’s final game in Carver-Hawkeye Arena before she enters the WNBA Draft.

West Virginia was prepared for the noise, using hand signals to communicate plays. The drawback was that Iowa had scouted those, and at least once, Bluder copied the signal, recognizing it and relaying it to her team.

At one point late in the first quarter, Harrison slowed as she brought the ball up offensively, trying to hear Kellogg only a few feet away. And late in the game, Kellogg extended one leg to lunge onto the court, clapping as he shouted defensive instructions toward his team at the far end.

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After the buzzer sounded and West Virginia had nearly spoiled Iowa’s fairytale dreams for Clark and her teammates, the Mountaineers quickly filed into the handshake line. Quinerly was first in line behind her coaches. When she was through, she turned around and high-fived each of her teammates as they headed for the tunnel to the locker room.

Then she waved to the pocket of West Virginia fans in the arena, and then to the Iowa fans, too, acknowledging the atmosphere.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” she said. “So got to give credit to that all the time.”

Listening to Kellogg, Quinerly and Hemingway in West Virginia’s postgame press conference, there seemed to be optimism and hope, even after the hope of winning on Monday had been snuffed out. It didn’t feel like the end of a season; it felt like the beginning of something.

“You all keep watching us,” Quinerly said. “We got more coming next season.”

Written by Jenn Hatfield

Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats, FanSided, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.

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