Martin leads upset by Mountaineers for first Big 12 title
West Virginia hadn’t won conference title since 1989 in A-10.
West Virginia entered the Big 12 women’s tournament on the bubble for an NCAA bid. It left it with an automatic berth.
Tynice Martin scored 32 points, helping the Moun- taineers beat No. 2 Baylor 77-66 in the Big 12 final Monday night.
West Virginia last won a conference tournament in 1989, when it was part of the Atlantic 10. There was no reason to believe things would change this year, not with West Virginia limping into the tournament with five losses in its previous nine games.
The Mountaineers turned it around at Chesa- peake Energy Arena. They advanced to the final with Top 25 victories over Oklahoma and Texas, and West Virginia coach Mike Carey saw no reason to stop there.
“They knew coming down here that we had to win at least one, two games (to get an NCAA bid), and I told ’em after the second game, ‘Hell, we might as well win the third one since we’re here,’” he said. “And they came out and played extremely hard and continued to play defense the whole time.”
Martin, a sophomore guard, set a tournament record for most points in a championship game and was named the most outstanding player.
She averaged 27.3 points in three games, the third-high- est average in tournament history.
“It feels amazing to aver- age what I averaged this tour- nament,” Martin said. “But when you have good prac- tices and when you have my teammates behind me saying, ‘Nobody can guard you,’ and my coach saying, ‘Attack them,’ you have no choice but to do what they say and to believe in yourself.”
Teana Muldrow added 15 points for West Virginia (23-10).
Kalani Brown scored 19 points and Kristy Wallace had 17 points and nine rebounds for Baylor (30-3), which had won the last six conference tournaments.
The Lady Bears had won seven in a row against West Virginia, but the Mountain- eers lost by just six at Baylor on Feb. 6 in their previous meeting and played with confidence from the start in the final.
Martin scored 11 points in the first quarter to help West Virginia take a 22-14 lead. West Virginia’s biggest lead was 21 points in the third quarter.
Baylor coach Kim Mulkey was pleased that the Lady Bears cut it to six in the fourth quarter, but she wished her team didn’t wait so long to turn up the intensity.
“If you play with that sense of urgency when the game started, and you get every loose ball and you’re productive the first five minutes of the game, you might not have lost,” she said. — Houston Rockets’ James Harden.
Leonard outscored Harden 17-4 in the final quarter as the Spurs rallied for a 112-110 victory over the Rockets. Leonard and Harden each had 39 points.
Harden, a dazzling, crafty scorer who also leads the NBA in assists, is considered the front-runner for the award after transforming the Rockets into genuine Western Conference contenders.
Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook, whose Thunder welcome the Spurs to Chesapeake Energy Arena on Thursday, is on pace to join Oscar Robertson as the only players in NBA history to average a triple-double.
Two-time MVP Stephen Curry, something of an afterthought in this year’s race, brings his Golden State Warriors to the AT&T Center on Saturday.
Later this month, Leonard and the Spurs will get a look at four-time winner LeBron James when Cleveland comes to town March 27.
If you think Leonard is eyeing the week to come as a platform from which to launch a final MVP push, you don’t know Leonard.
“We’re just trying to get better as a team, keep moving forward,” said Leonard, who is averaging 32 points, nine rebounds and four steals in four March games. “We’re thinking about ourselves, really, not who we’re about to play against.”
Last year’s runner-up to Curry for the Maurice Podoloff Trophy, Leonard has of late begun to burnish his MVP credentials anyway.
He is averaging 26.1 points, the most for a Spurs player since David Robinson logged 27.6 per game during his MVP season of 1994-95.
Leonard has posted 22 30-point games, most in a season for any Spur except for Robinson and George Gervin.
He has done it while remaining one of the league’s most fearsome perimeter defenders, averaging nearly two steals per game and locking up an opponent’s best player each night.
Put another way, Leonard is a two-time NBA defensive player of the year in the throes of a better offensive season than the great Tim Duncan ever produced.
As the glittering box score lines have begun to pile up for Leonard, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has become coy about overly lauding his 25-year-old superstar.
“I try not to praise Kawhi too much,” Popovich said with a gleam.
“He’s getting paid to do that.”
Even so, Popovich will not deny Leonard belongs at the epicenter of the MVP con- versation.
In their first season without Duncan, the Spurs are 48-13 with a better-than-de- cent chance of stealing the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, and they have only one All-Star. That’s Leonard. “There’s so few of those people who play at that level at both ends,” Popovich said. “He’s earned a lot of respect and whatever accolades he gets, he’s earned it.”
Saturday’s 97-90 overtime victory over Minnesota provided ample evidence of Leonard’s dominance in both phases of the game.
He posted 34 points, 10 rebounds and six steals, becoming only the second Spurs player in history to accrue those totals. Alvin Robertson accomplished that against the Lakers in November 1986.
That Leonard started Saturday 3 for 10, and entered the fourth quarter with only 14 points, was not lost on his Spurs teammates.
“He can make a bad night look really good quickly,” guard Danny Green said.
“He can turn it on in a matter of seconds. Somehow, some way, he is going to find a rhythm.”
Though Leonard’s MVP push has flown under the radar, opposing coaches are well aware of his candidacy.
His “two-wayness” makes Leonard special.
“You don’t want to say Michael Jordan,” New Orleans coach Alvin Gentry said, “but it is that type of situation where you have a really, really good offensive player and a tremendous defensive player.
“He definitely has to be heavily in the conversation for MVP.”
For now, the award seems to be Harden’s to lose. If he does, it will probably be Westbrook who swipes it.
Leonard, despite his sterling resume, remains a dark horse.
If Leonard does end up winning his first NBA MVP award, however, this much is certain: Someone is going to have to find him to tell him about it.