- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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NORFOLK, Va. -- Ayana Dunning was playing AAU basketball at Nike Nationals in Augusta, S.C., in the summer of 2007 when a pass came in her direction.
She was playing defense and couldn't quite round it up. It bounced off her hands and out of bounds. West Virginia coach Mike Carey was sitting along the baseline and turned to chat with another coach when the deflection hit him square in the face.
"She came over to get the ball and apologized and I said, 'You at least owe me a visit,'" Carey said. "But we never got it."
At least not at first.
Dunning, who was rated as the No. 3 overall player in the country at the time, chose LSU. She said she didn't really understand then how not every school was meant for everyone. Coach Pokey Chatman, who recruited her, had just left the LSU program and Dunning admitted she was unsure from the start of her arrival in Baton Rouge.
"When I made my decision, I wanted to spend the entire year there, but I was kind of iffy about it," Dunning said. "Coach Pokey was just leaving and I wanted to stick it out and see how things went, but it just wasn't the place for me."
And Carey finally got his visit, albeit a short one.
"I only stayed for a couple of hours and drove straight back home," Dunning said. "I just got a feel for the coaches and the players and the atmosphere. I didn't really want to see all of the other things that all of the other schools have. At this level, everyone offers great academic support and has unique facilities. The biggest thing for me was getting to know the players and the coaches on a personal level to see if I would fit."
Carey said he's never let Dunning forget that first meeting.
"I always tease her that she let that ball go on purpose," Carey said.
But he ended up getting his player, one who will play a very big role Monday in the Mountaineers' second-round matchup against top-seeded Stanford (ESPN2, 7:15 p.m. ET). She will have to stay out of the foul trouble that limited her to 17 minutes on Saturday in West Virginia's first-round win against Texas (Dunning finished with 7 points, 8 rebounds and 4 personal fouls). She is averaging 8.2 points and a team-leading 8.4 rebounds a game in her second full season at West Virginia.
Her veteran presence will be key Monday, as West Virginia becomes the latest team that will have to figure out how to put the brakes on Stanford's Ogwumike sisters, Nneka and Chiney. The onus will fall on Dunning and fellow junior Asya Bussie to vault the Mountaineers to their first Sweet 16 appearance since 1992.
"I think this would be a great building block for us," Dunning said. "None of us have ever been to the Sweet 16."
Dunning is a junior when it comes to her athletic eligibility, but she is well into her master's program for integrated market and communication after needing only three years to earn her degree in sports management.
"I took a lot of online classes, I took classes in the summer, I just piled up with classes," Dunning said. "My second year at WVU, I was taking 22 credits a semester. It was a heavy load, but it was something they helped me with. I spent hours and hours and hours in study hall to get my work done."
Dunning's goal: to become a general manager for a professional sports team.
"The majority of my classes now are online, so when we are away, I'm not getting behind," Dunning said.
Carey said Dunning's hard work in the classroom has made her a role model for his young team, which starts two juniors, two sophomores and a freshman.
"She's so focused academically," Carey said. "She's the person the players go to, she's like the big sister here."
Dunning is known as "Ya-Ya," but her teammates also call her "Mom." On Sundays, days when there is a good NBA game or a big football game on TV, the players gather at Dunning's apartment and she cooks for them. And she takes requests.
"Brooke [Hampton] likes my chicken cacciatore, Asya is a fan of my chicken and gravy and mashed potatoes," Dunning said. "Anything they ask me to. It's like family."
Carey came to Dunning and Bussie early in the season, sat them down and told them he expected them to step up as leaders after the loss of five seniors last season.
"You've got to make sure younger players buy in to what you are asking them to do," Carey said. "You need to have that leadership."
Dunning said she didn't feel an "initial pressure" to step up. "But Coach and Asya and I have had several conversations," Dunning said. "I'm able to help lead them, not only vocally, but emotionally."
The Mountaineers will need more than emotional leadership Monday night. Carey said Dunning and Bussie have to be ready to run with the Ogwumike sisters, and keep them off the boards. Asked what would be the most positive development of the day for his team, Carey answered: "Get the sisters in foul trouble."
"No, we need to not let them play the transition game, and we need to make them play defense," Carey said. "We need to play physical and make them run their offensive sets."
Dunning knows the plan.
"Of course, the focus of our defense is going to be on those two," Dunning said. "It's going to be a challenge. We just have to stay with our game plan. We are going to have to focus on getting back and not letting them get touches."
West Virginia will be the latest team that will have to try to figure out Stanford and the Ogwumike sisters, and Ayana Dunning's veteran experience could be the answer in the second-round clash.