West Virginia’s Derek Culver powered his way to 21 first-half points on his way to a career-high 28, but it wasn’t enough for the Mountaineers to prevail against Florida in Saturday’s Big/12 SEC Challenge at the WVU Coliseum, as the Gators scored an 85-80 victory.
In addition to his 28 points, Culver grabbed 12 rounds to record the junior center’s 24th career double-double, which is the 12th most in West Virginia history. The Mountaineers also got 21 points from junior guard Sean McNeil, but outside of those two, WVU’s other players totaled just 31 points and only made a combined eight-of-37 field goal attempts and four-of-21 3-point tries.
West Virginia sophomore guard Deuce McBride, who had a career-high 24 points, including the game-winner, in Monday night’s 88-87 victory over Texas Tech, had knocked down 14 of his 23 3-point attempts over the previous five games. But Saturday, he managed to score just nine points while missing all six of his 3-point tries and making just three of his 15 field goal attempts.
Such is basketball – some days you’re hot and some days you’re not.
Culver certainly was hot in the first half in helping West Virginia build a 42-37 lead at the midway point. He made nine of 11 free throws in the period, as well as all six of his field goal attempts.
“(Florida) went into the locker room at halftime and tried to keep me away from the ball and keep me away from the hoop,” noted Culver, who was limited to just five shot attempts, of which he made only one, in the second half.
Culver did go to the foul line regularly in both halves, though. He drew 12 fouls from UF for the game and wound up making 14 of 17 free throw shots for the contest. That’s a remarkable number for a player who had shot just 54% from the foul line in the first 15 games of the season.
“I’ve found a pretty good rhythm that I’m using, and I think I’m going to stick with,” said Culver of his renovated free throw form, which includes a hesitation at the top of his release.
The junior center from Youngstown, Ohio, converted at a high rate from the foul line, but his post touches were limited in the second half by Florida double teams.
“We did a better job on Culver in the second half, but a bad job on McNeil,” noted Gator coach Mike White, whose club improved to 9-4 with the victory. “Culver was amazing in the first half. I thought we were a little bit quicker to the fire in the second half. They got (fewer) touches (in the second half) based on the perimeter tracing of the ball.
“We just played with a little bit more energy and a little more attention to detail.”
Florida had a 34-31 lead with 4:02 to play in the first half, but West Virginia closed with an 11-3 run to take a five-point advantage into the locker room at halftime.
The Mountaineers were still on top five, 58-53, five and a half minutes into the second half, but then UF got hot, going on an 8-0 spurt over a span of barely a minute.
“We let them get started,” said Huggins of the Gators’ second-half turnaround. “We didn’t guard them coming out of halftime. They’re good. They’ve got really good players. They got us spread out. We didn’t play with a lot of aggression.”
The lead would volley back and forth for the final 10 minutes, and it was a one-point game, 81-80, with 1:40 left. But WVU missed its final four shots and also had a shot clock violation in the decisive, closing span. Meanwhile Florida hit all four of its foul shots in that same stretch – further improving the visitors’ 25 of 30 accuracy from the line – to seal the victory.
“It’s my fault,” said Huggins of the Mountaineers’ inefficiency at the end of the game. “I take all the responsibility. We have – and it started a while ago – more guys talking in the huddle. Everybody is talking. Nobody knows what they are doing. We did not come out of the huddle knowing what we are doing, even though I’m trying to tell them what to do. I’m trying to draw it up on the clipboard what to do. I’m trying to explain to them what is supposed to happen, but I have other guys who are talking away about what they think should happen. We have to cut that out. We should have cut that out before.”
With the loss, 11th-ranked West Virginia fell to 10-5 on the season and also dropped to 2-6 all-time in the Big 12/SEC Challenge. That’s the worst Challenge mark of any Big 12 team. WVU also fell to 3-7 all-time against Florida.
“We can do some things, but when the shots do not go in, you’re not going to win,” concluded Huggins, whose Mountaineers are in action next on Tuesday at Iowa State (7 p.m. on ESPN+). “When all your shots come from the perimeter and you go 1-for-2 from the free throw line consistently, as we did in the second half, you’re not going to win. You’re not going to win hard games like this.
“As poorly as we shot the ball (25 of 63) and as poorly as we shot it from the free throw line (22 of 31), it’s amazing we were in the game for as long as we were in the game.”