Inner Strength Powers WVU Again
MORGANTOWN, W. Va. — There are any of a number of ways to win a basketball game.
You can win on Xs and Os, your coach simply having it all figured out. You can win it on luck, a bounce here, a call there. You can win it on talent, simply having more of it than the other team.
And so it seems that is the greatest strength of this year’s West Virginia Mountaineers, a team tht refused to put away Rhode Island at the Coliseum on Sunday, squandering a 14-point lead, but which reached deep down inside and found a way to survive, 86-81, before 10,973 fans.
It was the Mountaineers’ seventh consecutive victory, which may push them into this week’s Top 25 although at this time of year that is rather meaningless.
If they don’t get there it’s because they have yet to display a killer instinct, to beat anyone badly, even though they have had opportunities.
But they offset that by having players like Derek Culver and Oscar Tshiebwe who dominate inside, Culver having his finest game of the still-young season with 25 points and 11 rebounds after coming off the bench, and Tshiebwe, the heralded freshman, surviving a scoreless first half to make plays down the stretch and finish with 11 points and nine rebounds.
That they are surrounded with talent like Jermaine Haley, who scored WVU’s first eight points and finished with 16 points and five rebounds, and Emmitt Matthews Jr., who scored 14 points with four rebounds, makes this a team that can not be discounted.
But, in the end, what signifies the strength of this team is the relationship between Culver and Tshiebwe.
There could have been jealousies and infighting with two big men and just one basketball between them. Somehow, though, that isn’t a part of either’s make-up. They genuinely like each other, look out for each other and root for each other.
“That’s never been a problem,” coach Bob Huggins said. “Actually, Derek tries to help Oscar as much as he can. I can see where Derek would get frustrated because Oscar is not where he’s supposed to be in a lot of instances. We have a lot of work to do with him on that, understanding spacing and knowing what we’re trying to run. We’re clogging things up so bad, it looks like roller derby.”
Tshiebwe admits he looks to Culver for guidance.
“Our relationship you can not believe. It is really, really great,” Tshiebwe said. ‘We love each other on this team. We hang out with each other. We do everything together. That’s how it is.
“If we play good, I go to the other guys and say, ‘Thank you, thank you. You did good.’ And if I did good, they come to me. We have to help each other.”
And that’s how it was at halftime in this one. WVU had an 11-point lead and Culver was dominating but Tshiebwe was struggling.
“He came to me. He said, ‘Slow down and stay focused. Play hard, we are going to do good. Don’t worry about it because the coach was yelling at you and stuff like that. Just keep your head in the game. You will be fine.'”
“I told him be calm, everything is going to come,” Culver recalled. “‘What are you, 6-9, 250, you are a freak of nature. A lot of people don’t want to be bothered with that all the time. They are going to break down.”
And break down they did and Tshiebwe began controlling the inside with Culver.
“I’m not his daddy, but I’m trying to show him the ropes,” Culver said. “It’s like me last year. I wish someone had shown me. I got thrown into the fire, but it is what it is.”
They needed all they could get out of the big men, because Rhode Island’s little man, 5-10, 165 pound “Fatts” Russell was putting on a show, hitting 14 shots and scoring 32 points with five assists and five steals to keep Rhode Island close.
West Virginia led by a point, 82-81, with 34 seconds left, then Haley hit a basket in the paint and Jordan McCabe clinched it with two free throws with three seconds left after Rhode Island threw the ball away trying to get it to Harris for a tying 3.
West Virginia doesn’t play again until if faces St. John’s in New York at noon Saturday.