WVU men’s basketball had some extra motivation for its rematch with Rhode Island.
The Mountaineers were embarrassed by the Rams by 13 points last season. Sunday’s game marked an opportunity for revenge.
“They laughed at us at the end of last year’s game, and if we got laughed at again, we’d be on the treadmill til next week,” said sophomore Emmitt Matthews Jr.
The Mountaineers did get their revenge, winning 86-81, but they didn’t put the game away after jumping out to a double-digit lead in the first half.
Head coach Bob Huggins said the Mountaineers overcame a “flat” performance to win. The contest was West Virginia’s first since its triumph at the 2019 Cancun Challenge, an experience that tested his team’s endurance.
“We’ve got a bunch of young guys that have never been through the travel part of it, and the travel part’s hard,” Huggins said. “It takes a lot out of you.”
West Virginia led by as many as 14 in the first half, but saw that lead evaporate by the midway point of the second half. The Rams tied the score at 60-60 with under 10 minutes to go on a driving layup by Rhode Island’s Jeff Dowtin.
From there, the Mountaineers did just enough to fend off the visitors. They never fell behind, and instead pulled back ahead by seven before trading buckets with the Rams for most of the final five minutes.
“We all trusted each other,” said freshman guard Miles McBride. “We came to the huddle and said we’re gonna get stops, we’re gonna make free throws, things like that. Being a family, all together.”
While Huggins lamented that his players didn’t have much pop in their first game since their trip to Mexico, one player certainly did excel thanks to a slight tweak to the starting lineup.
Sophomore Derek Culver began the game on the bench, but still netted a career-high 25 points in the victory. He also grabbed 11 boards for his first double-double of the season.
Culver has started in five of West Virginia’s seven games this year. He missed all of the first half against Northern Colorado for disciplinary reasons, but Huggins noted that his omission from the starting lineup this time around was purely strategic, in an attempt to balance the lineup.
“We thought it was the best thing to do for this game,” Huggins said.
Culver’s 25 points are the most by a Mountaineer in any game this season. It’s also the third time in his career that he’s logged more than 20 points in a contest.
“All the moves that I was making were moves that I wanted to make, and I wasn’t really rushing,” Culver said. “I felt that everything just played hand-in-hand and I ended up having an OK performance.”
The win moves the Mountaineers to 7-0 on the season. They’ve beaten some quality teams during the first four weeks of the regular season. That could mean Huggins’ team will appear in the national polls this week.
Regardless, the head coach’s mentality won’t change.
“I’d be happy for them, because that’s what they want,” Huggins said. “But at this point in time, I could care less.”