Mountaineers Find New Life In Win Over Oklahoma State
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – The Mountaineers were staring into the abyss.
Having already lost three in a row, West Virginia was down 30-20 to Oklahoma State with 3:28 left in the first half Tuesday.
The WVU Coliseum crowd was restless.
It was still unsettled a few minutes later as the Mountaineers seemed about to take a 33-25 deficit into the lockerroom at halftime to the Cowboys, who had been playing better as of late but still were just 13-12 on the season and 3-9 in Big 12 play.
Its confidence already shaken after losses to Oklahoma, Kansas and Baylor, West Virginia needed a spark, any spark.
It got just that when Jermaine Haley’s spinning three-point attempt from the corner just beat the clock, and after bouncing around the rim for seemingly an eternity, eventually fell through the net. The three cut the OSU halftime lead to 33-28, gave WVU a ton of momentum and provided West Virginia coach with a new strategy.
“I told them to throw it to Jermaine in the corner every time,” laughed WVU head coach Bob Huggins sarcastically of his halftime game plan.
Haley had been just four of 16 from three-point range this season, and he had made just two shots from beyond the arc in the last 17 games. But the one he made against the Cowboys spun Tuesday’s game – and perhaps the Mountaineers’ entire season – completely around. WVU used that shot and the insuring energy charge to run away from Oklahoma State in the second half and score a 65-47 victory.
“I’d be lying if I told you I hadn’t been thinking about it,” said Huggins when asked if his team’s fragile ego could have crumbled if it had to endure a fourth straight loss. “We had a bad first half, but played pretty well the second half.
“It was a different lineup and we tried to do different things, but in hindsight, that probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do,” the veteran coach added.
The lineup Huggins used at the start of the game was different than the one he had used most of the season. Freshman guard Deuce McBride got the first start of his Mountaineer career and junior guard Taz Sherman got his second. Thus sophomore guard Jordan McCabe and sophomore forward Derek Culver each began the game on bench, though both eventually played.
“Not starting didn’t bother me,” said Culver, who wound up playing 20 minutes, scoring six points and grabbing 10 rebounds. “I took it as a challenge, and when I got in, I went out there and did what I had to do at a high level.”
As much as the lineup change drew attention, it was really a return to its old ways that allowed WVU to run away for victory over the Pokes. West Virginia outscored OSU 20-4 in the opening 12 minutes of the second half by doing what it normally does – playing strong defense and rebounding. Oklahoma State made just two of its first 16 shots in the second half, and the Mountaineers wound up outrebounding their visitors 42-29 for the game and 26-17 in the final 20 minutes. In all, the Mountaineers outscored OK State 40-14 in the final 20:01.
“Our defense led to good offense,” said Sherman, who had nine points to go along with two steals. “We tired them out. We played more people than them, and we sped them up offensively. We tried to jab at them and make them feel uncomfortable.”
After making 13 of 21 shots in the first half (61.9 percent), the Cowboys managed to make just five of 30 shots in the second half (16.7 percent).
Meanwhile West Virginia was more efficient in the second half (12 of 26 from the floor, 46.2 percent) compared to the first (11 of 28, 39.3 percent).
McBride was a big part of that offensive resurgence. The freshman from Cincinnati had scored 10 or more points in 11 of 12 games midway through the season, but hadn’t broken past the nine-point barrier in the past five games. He scored just two points in the first half Tuesday but found a rhythm in the second and finished the game with 11.
“It was different starting rather than coming off the bench,” noted McBride. “You feel like you have a little more freedom to look for shots.
“More than anything offensively, though, it still comes down to defense and getting stops.”
Fellow guard Sean McNeil followed McNeil’s pattern, scoring two points in the first half and nine in the second.
“Obviously coming back from being sick, I tried to get myself in the flow of the game” said McNeil, who had missed three games recently while battling the flu. “I finally hit some shots, and that kind of got me going, and I just kept it rolling from there.”
It was just the fourth time in 23 games this season that the sophomore guard has reached double figures.
Huggins made no promises that the lineup changes will be permanent. He praised the way Culver played and still likes pairing him with fellow big man Oscar Tshiebwe.
After all, WVU’s new lineup got the Mountaineers in a 10-point halftime hole. Its tried-and-true method of defense and rebounding dug them out and sent them on their way to a 19-7 record.