Esa Ahmad Rebounds From Slow Start To Help Push WVU Past Murray State
SAN DIEGO — It wasn’t exactly the start that West Virginia’s forwards in general, or Esa Ahmad in particular, was looking for.
Coming off an awful showing in the Big 12 Championship game against Kansas, that group had gotten an earful from the Mountaineer coaching staff. The knowledge that West Virginia wouldn’t last long in the NCAA Tournament with another such performance was emphasized. But in the early going, WVU couldn’t get the ball to drop. Ahmad had two good looks in the first 30 seconds, but both bounced out. Another miss followed, and another from 3-point range. In all, over the first six minutes, Ahmad had just one free throw, but he didn’t let that affect him on the boards and in other areas of the game, as it has at times in the past. He grabbed five rebounds in that same stretch while also helping spur a defensive effort that kept Murray State from taking advantage of West Virginia’s 2-9 start from the field. Although the Racers did manage one early lead at 9-8, the Mountaineers quickly responded with an 8-0 run to take control of the game.
“I think our press got us going,” Ahmad said of the turnaround. “We got them going fast, turned them over and got some easy buckets.”
That’s typically the path to victory for the Mountaineers, but in this game it was also settling in with the halfcourt offense. After the frenzied early moments of the game, WVU ran its sets much better, getting good looks on most every possession. Following that early cold spell, the Mountaineers made 30 of their final 53 attempts, and wound up shooting 51.6% from the field. Forty-eight of the team’s 85 points came in the lane, with numerous three-point plays resulting from fouls on made shots.
“We were kind of anxious and rushing things, missing little chippies, but in the second half we settled down, ran offense and got what we wanted,” Ahmad noted. “We just wanted to get those jitters out early and calmed down.”
WVU was less reliant on 3-pointers in this game than in many of its 2017-18 contests, and didn’t get drawn in to a long-range shooting battle with the Racers. WVU possessed a decided height and reach advantage, and it utilized that to maximum effect, sticking with the game plan even when early shots weren’t falling. The Mountaineers attempted just 11 threes overall — their fewest of the season — and were 28-51 from two-point distance.
Ahmad was also well-balanced after the early misses. He made one of his remaining two 3-point attempts, and used his reach and leaping ability to score over Murray State defenders. He finished with 12 points on 4-9 shooting, and added six rebounds, two assists and a steal, giving West Virginia the productivity it needed from the position. Along with Teddy Allen, who exploded off the bench for 16 points in 23 minutes, and the steady contributions of Wesley Harris, Ahmad’s play reversed the negatives of last week, and made the wings positions of strength in the opening round win.