BLUEFIELD, W.Va. -- The best way to enjoy The System is live and in person. Thankfully, I had an another opportunity to do so, and even took a neophyte with me to share this glorious style of basketball.
Good friend Jason Lutz and I rode up to West Virginia on Thursday to catch the NCAA Division II women's team from Glenville State, a great program in its fourth season with The System. Seriously, how can you not enjoy a group of players who would do that for the team photo (hmm, just look at the top of blog)? Those of who familiar with this blog know the coach at Glenville State has perhaps the greatest name in all of collegiate athletics: Bunky Harkleroad.
Coach Harkleroad and the Pioneers traveled south from their campus to take on West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference foe Bluefield State. In the past few seasons, this trip has been relatively easy, since the Lady Blues had fallen on hard times. That no longer is the case, thanks to a wonderful rebuilding job by Bluefield State coach James Oliver.
Two years ago, when I most recently made my way to Bluefield to watch these two teams go at it, Coach Oliver had about eight players who quickly found themselves ran out of Ned Shott Gymnasium. The final that day was 118-63 in favor of Coach Harkleroad's team, a result that really wasn't that close. And the season before, the Pioneers set all-division NCAA records with 29 3-pointers on 62 attempts in a 133-72 victory.
But the roster now has depth and talent, and talented depth, even, which helped Bluefield State beat Pitt-Johnstown 81-79 on the road earlier this season in a WVIAC game. So this one figured to be a little closer than the previous games.
After 20 minutes of play, you would have had a hard time making that argument. Glenville State jumped all over the Lady Blues from the start and led 62-37 at the break, a dominating stretch of basketball that left most of the home fans grumbling. I should know, one of them sat not too far behind me and Jason and critiqued nearly every play of the first half.
It didn't get much better for Bluefield State immediately after halftime, and when Pioneers forward Kenyona Simmons made one of two at the line about 5 minutes into the second half, the margin was 29 points at 75-46. I already was calculating how many points Simmons and her teammates would put on the scoreboard, wondering if they would beat the 118 that I saw on my previous trip.
Just as quickly. the Lady Blues came to life.
Jenaya Abernathy started the rally with a pair of free throws before Charity Harris took over. The junior guard from Vineland, N.J., went on a personal 10-point spurt, making the overall run 12-0, and Bluefield State miraculously was within 17.
Now, that sounds like a huge lead, right? That's what I told myself, yet with the late-arriving crowd making enough noise to cover the running commentary from the dude a few rows behind us, it sort of felt as it was much, MUCH closer. The Lady Blues hastened this comeback by switching from their man-to-man defense to a spread out 2-3 zone.
The change stymied the Pioneers, who missed six consecutive shots in this span and turned it over four times. But a team as good as them wouldn't fold, and Tiffani Huffman responded with a clutch 3-pointer to boost the lead to 78-58.
It stabilized for a bit until Bluefield State got it going again, closing to 80-67 on a tip-in by Tiffany Moorer. Once again, Glenville State responded, with Ashleigh Fossett swishing a 3, and soon the margin was 21 again.
Anyone sensing a theme? I wondered if the Lady Blues had another run in them, even as I never doubted Coach Harkleroad's team would fight it off. Sure enough, here came Bluefield State, helped immensely by two questionable calls against Glenville State center LaToya Hambrick with about 5 and a half minutes remaining.
First, when she went straight up for an offensive rebound and grabbed the ball, with no contact between her and Moorer, one of the referees whistled her for over-the-back. And when Hambrick showed her surprise, directed only toward her teammates on the bench, the trailing referee hit her up with a technical.
Terrible, terrible call, something that happens occasionally on the road. Charlene Diggs made both shots at the line for the T, and Moorer converted her two for the foul. When Diggs added two more free throws about 60 seconds later, the Glenville State lead was down to 95-83, "only" 12 points.
This time it was Ginny Mills coming through with a big shot for the Pioneers, as her 3-pointer off an assist from Simmons got the spread by to 15 with about 4 minutes left, and this time, Bluefield State was done. Jessica Parsons (no relation) knocked down another 3 a minute later and Glenville State cruised from there.
The final was 111-93, a solid victory on the road against a vastly improved program. Huffman, Fossett, Mills and Parsons all made such important shots to secure this one, a testament to the chemistry Coach Harkleroad has this season.
Simmons led the way with 26 points and Mills had 23, with Fossett (13), Parsons (11) and Hambrick (10) also reaching double figures. Simmons added four steals, Hambrick had eight rebounds and the point guard tandem of Parsons and Jelena Elez combined for eight dimes.
After it was over and we were waiting to give Coach Harkleroad a shoutout before leaving, Hambrick made her way over to where Jason and I were standing. She introduced herself and thanked us for coming, and we had a nice conversation while watching the early stages of the men's game.
She eventually went to find a seat in the bleachers, and she quickly was replaced by Simmons. At this point, I was sensing a theme, so I asked her, "Did your coach tell you I was here?"
She smiled and nodded her head, and others followed them, including Huffman and Briauna Nix. Then Coach Harkleroad and his assistant, former Glenville State player Kim Stephens, spent a few minutes with us, then we were on the road home.
It was bittersweet, I'm not going to lie. I savored each second of the game, since I don't know when I'll see one of my favorite teams in person again. A huge thanks to everybody who made a point to say hello, and as always, a huge thanks to Coach Harkleroad for being a believer and an advocate for The System. It truly is the most exciting style of hoops I've ever seen, even if Jason said he wasn't totally sold yet.
That's OK. That just means I'll have to take him to see other teams which get it done this way. I've got no problem with that.