March 11, 2023 

Growing and winning in Morgantown

West Virginia Mountaineers looking to climb into the 2023 NCAA Tournament field

There’s a saying that we hear in March that defense wins championships. In most cases, it proves to be true, and it also can be what sets the tone for an entire season. Players start by buying into a message of toughness and teamwork, of accountability and hustle. From there, other things can flourish, including playmaking, unselfishness and a renewed sense of passion for the game. It may not always be perfect and translate automatically into wins, but the standard is set for the future.

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In March 2022, West Virginia began their search for a new women’s basketball head coach when Mike Carey retired after over two decades as the head Mountaineer. The identity of West Virginia in the BIG EAST and the Big 12 had always been toughness wins out, but with an old-school mentality. Enter Dawn Plitzuweit who became the sixth head coach in program history in April 2022 and reset the culture and identity of West Virginia women’s basketball.

Plitzuweit arrived in Morgantown after six seasons as head coach at South Dakota, amassing a 158-36 record and winning over 20 games in five of those six years. She was named the Summit League Coach of the Year three times and the Coyotes claimed three regular season and three league tournament titles in that span. South Dakota made four appearances in the NCAA Tournament during Plitzuweit’s tenure, including a run to the Sweet 16 a year ago after upset wins over Mississippi and Baylor.

Staff changes leave ripples throughout programs and West Virginia was no different. Players graduated and entered the transfer portal. Others stayed and new faces arrived. Plitzuweit brought her entire staff with her to Morgantown and a resume that showcased the success they had as a coaching unit. Fast forward to the 2022-23 season and after all the changes, meetings, practices and games, the Mountaineers finished the regular season 19-10 overall and tied for fourth in the Big 12 at 10-8. West Virginia has been part of the “bubble conversation” for the past several weeks as we barrel towards Selection Sunday and the NCAA Tournament.

It did not hurt that two of the returners this season made up what arguably is the best backcourt in the Big 12. Madisen Smith, a fifth-year 5’5 senior guard, returned to lead the team in minutes played and assists on her way to being named honorable mention All-Big 12. Beside her all season was sophomore sensation JJ Quinerly, who one year ago was a member of the Big 12 All-Freshmen Team. Quinerly, the Norfolk, VA native, led the team in scoring this season, was a unanimous selection to the 2023 All-Big 12 First Team and earned a spot on the All-Big 12 Defensive Team.

Committing themselves to team defense was the message from the start and as the season progressed, West Virginia became one of the best in the league at shutting down opponents. They were second in the Big 12 in conference play in scoring defense at 61 points/game and led the league in turnover margin (6.14). There were many games this season where the Mountaineers were just the tougher team, imposing their will physically on teams and punishing them on both ends of the floor.

On Friday, March 10 West Virginia squared off as the No. 5 seed (per a tiebreaker) with the No. 4 seed Oklahoma State in the first quarterfinal of the Big 12 Tournament. The Mountaineers flustered OSU all afternoon causing 20 Cowgirl turnovers and holding them well below their season average of 76.8 points per game. West Virginia led by as many as 13 in the third quarter and answered OSU with big threes and defensive stops; but a 15-3 run by OSU in the fourth quarter closed the gap to one with 13 seconds to play. Cowgirl guard Terryn Milton went one-on-one to get a deep floater that hung on the rim and eventually dropped in to give the No. 5 seed a 62-61 win.

Sophomore guard JJ Quinerly (11) drives to the basket en route to 18 Big 12 Tournament quarterfinal points. West Virginia was defeated in a buzzer-beater loss to Oklahoma State on March 10, 2023. (Photo credit: Scott D. Weaver/Big 12 Conference)

“Certainly, a heartbreaking loss for our young ladies. Our effort and intensity were good. We just couldn’t get stops down the stretch and that hurt us. At the same time, they made some shots that were contested shots and we had some shots that didn’t go in,” Plitzuweit said after the loss. “But certainly, I think our young ladies have earned an opportunity to keep playing in the NCAA Tournament. With the resume we have, tied for fourth place in the Big 12, I think our ladies deserve an opportunity to keep playing and play in the Big Dance.”

As of March 10, West Virginia is No. 61 in the NET and were 5-5 in their last 10 games of the season, winning three in a row heading into the Big 12 Tournament. The 19 wins overall are the most in a single season by a first-year head coach at WVU. When asked on Friday to reflect on season one in Morgantown, Plitzuweit was quick to praise her players and staff.

“I think when you look at how much we have grown from the beginning of not only this season, but the beginning of the Big 12 season to now, I just give our young ladies and our staff a lot of credit for continuing to work and to grind,” she said. “We’re a team that must be incredibly good defensively to give ourselves a chance. But I think our young ladies probably exceeded a lot of expectations, and I think their ability, their want, their connectiveness, all those types of things continue to grow and will continue to grow throughout the season yet because I don’t believe that we’re done and I don’t believe that our ladies should be done; I don’t.”

Does the resume have enough behind it to get an at-large bid? If Plitzuweit has anything to say about it, it surely does. “To finish 10-8 in the Big 12 in a great conference, to finish the year in the regular season, obviously not this game but finish, winning five of our last seven and upset two top-25 teams, I think there are at least six wins that we had of teams that are projected to be in the NCAA Tournament,” she said.

West Virginia will anxiously be waiting for the bracket to appear on Selection Sunday. But bid or no bid, this season has been the reset for the Mountaineer women’s basketball program that many had hoped for and knowing this head coach, was not unexpected.

Written by Missy Heidrick

I am a retired Kansas State shooting guard and spent almost 20 years working in Higher Education and Division 1 athletics. I am currently a basketball analyst for television and radio, contributing correspondent at The Next, Locked on Women's Basketball podcast host, WBB Naismith Award board of selectors member and run my own consulting business. I am a proud mother of two and wife to a patient husband who is almost as big of a sports junkie as I am!

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