Eastern Kentucky led West Virginia for most of Friday night at the WVU Coliseum, but the Mountaineers fought back at the end to emerge with an 80-77 victory.
WVU (5-1) next hosts Bellarmine (1-5) Tuesday night (7 p.m. on ESPN+).
The Colonels came to the Coliseum with a 5-1 record and a reputation, behind the coaching of former Marshall standout A.W. Hamilton, as a team that could shoot the three well – EKU had made at least 13 shots from beyond the arc in all but one game so far this season – used a press to up the tempo. They did both well Friday.
“I don’t think our guys believed it, but I knew it was going to be tough,” explained WVU head coach Bob Huggins of the scouting report on Eastern Kentucky “You watch what they do on film, and it’s good stuff. You can’t give them open shots, and they mix things up defensively. They will keep you off guard. They’ll win a lot of games.”
West Virginia was very lucky one of those Eastern Kentucky wins didn’t come Friday in Morgantown.
The Colonels were blistering hot at the start of the game, hitting four 3-pointers in the first four minutes to sprint out to a 12-2 lead. EKU’s advantage grew as large as 12 at 30-18 10 minutes into the first half. Still trailing 32-23 a few minutes later, the Mountaineers went on a 10-0 run to move in front for the first time in the game, but that lead was short lived. The visitors outscored WVU in the final two minutes of the first half to take a 41-38 lead into the lockerroom at the midway point.
“We came out a little bit lackadaisical. I thought we were really, really flat,” stated Huggins, who won his 905th career game Friday. “I didn’t think we came out and played with a lot of energy.
“They really were the aggressor. We weren’t the aggressor until the end.”
The second half was similar to the end of the first – at least at the beginning – as Eastern Kentucky answered every West Virginia charge, often splashing home a 3-pointer.
“It seemed for a while they made every shot, but we also gave up so much penetration,” added Huggins during his postgame MSN radio show. “If you give guys penetration like that and allow them to pitch it to step-in shots, that’s like playing in the backyard.”
The Colonel doing the most damage was Jannson Williams, who made five of his eight 3-point shots and finished with 22 points. As a team Eastern Kentucky knocked down 14 of 29 treys (48.3%) to go along with 27 of 55 field goal attempts. The biggest drawbacks, though, for the visitors were the fact that they lost the turnover battle 17-10, which created a 19-10 points-off-turnover disparity. WVU also was dominant on the offensive boards, earning a 21-13 advantage in second-chance points.
EKU held a 63-57 lead with 10:09 left in the game, but the Mountaineers fought their way back and moved in front 71-70 on a Taz Sherman 3-pointer at the 4:19 mark. A single Colonel free throw tied things 30 seconds later, but a Sherman drive pushed WVU back in front with 3:26 remaining, and West Virginia would hold on from there.
“The three he made in front of the bench was huge for us. It was a hard three,” Huggins said of Sherman, who finished with a career-high 28 points. “He makes hard shots. He didn’t get 28 easy points tonight. He got 28 points he had to earn. He’s gotten better and better and better.”
Malik Curry also checked in with a 16 points, which is his best since transferring to WVU. Gabe Osabuohien added eight points and grabbed a team-high seven rebounds, but no other Mountaineer scored more than six points. Sean McNeil and Jalen Bridges, who had been West Virginia’s second- and third-leading scorers heading into Friday night with averages of 11.7 and 9.3 points per game respectively, managed just five points each. McNeil was two of 11 from the floor and one of eight from three, while Bridges converted on one of his seven field goal tries and none of his four 3-point attempts.
“When Sean is not making shots, that hurts us, and when J.B. is not making shots, that hurts us,” explained Huggins. “Our thing is to spread people out and get our guards to the rim, but we can’t do that when (McNeil and Bridges) are not making shots.
“Thank goodness for Taz and our offensive rebounding. They were our keys,” concluded Huggins.