West Virginia Remains Unbeaten After Narrow Win Over Rhode Island

Christopher Hall

Morgantown, WV – For the second time in three games, the West Virginia Mountaineers (7-0) battled to the very end after a pesky Rhode Island Rams (5-3) team had a chance to tie the game with a three with 13 seconds remaining in the game before West Virginia forced a turnover and Jordan McCabe sealed the game with a pair of free throws.

West Virginia probably ran its best half-court set after winning the opening tip as Gabe Osabuohien dished it to a cutting Jermaine Haley for an easy lay-in. Rhode Island quickly answered with a layup of its own and then the first of five Mountaineer turnovers inside of six minutes led to a jumper for Fatts Russell and the Rams had the early lead.

Haley continued to attack the basket to score the first of West Virginia’s eight points. However, a Mountaineer defense that has prided themselves in making their opponents work for shots and keeping them below their season averages, did not have an answer for Fatts Russell.

Russell averaged 22.8 points in the last five games and the stingy West Virginia defense couldn’t slow him down, finishing the afternoon with 32 points.

“For whatever reason, we did a really poor job of doing what we had gotten decent at,” said West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins. “You get a little bit tired, and you lag a little bit. We just let him split us too much.”

After not making his second start of the season, Derek Culver checked into the game at the 13-minute mark and West Virginia immediately started working the ball down in the paint to the 6-10 sophomore. Culver arguably had the most efficient game of his career, going 4-5 from the field and 4-4 from the free-throw line in the first half. Despite Rhode Island adjusting in the second half, Culver finished the game with a career-high 25 points and his first double-double of the year, grabbing 11 rebounds.

“I thought Derek was really good. He got a little tired at the end and forced some things at the end that normally he doesn’t force. It’s physical with him. They beat on him pretty good,” said Huggins.

Emmitt Matthews Jr. continued to pick his spots, helping to build a 14-point lead with a three at the top of the circle followed up with a reverse layup on a no-look pass from Jordan McCabe as West Virginia took an 11-point lead into the half.

Rhode Island turned up their defensive pressure and pushed the tempo to begin the second half and subsequently went on an 8-0 run to get the Rams back within four at the 16:45 mark.

There’s a bit of an uneasy feeling once West Virginia’s opponents start scoring at will and most notably when an opposing player, like Russell, gets a hot hand. Especially, since some of the Mountaineers shooters have not shot well at times as of late.

Nonetheless, West Virginia has continued to improve their half-court offense. Of course, it’s getting the ball down to Culver where he can work his jump-hook, but that was an issue last year that so far this year, they’ve figured out.

Then, Oscar Tshiebwe was beginning to establish himself in the paint midway through the second half getting nine of his 10 second-half points in the final 10 minutes while adding nine rebounds.

“He’s getting better and better,” said Huggins.

Jermaine Haley seemingly put the dagger in the Rams with 5:38 to play after a loose ball went out of bounds which left one second left on the shot clock. In-bounding from the side, Matthews got the ball to Haley deep along the right-wing, Haley pulled up with a quick release and drained the three to put West Virginia up six.

Rhode Island maintained their tempo, working off the ball to get easy buckets and was within one with 34 seconds remaining. The Rams immediately called a 30-second timeout flowing the play.

Deuce McBride brought the ball up the floor as Huggins yelled out instructions. The bigs cleared out the lane for Jermaine Haley on the right block and when the ball was delivered, Haley made quick work of the defender for the scoop and score.

"Coach told me to run something on the fly and we executed," said Haley. Not just me, Deuce made a good pass, DC (Culver) set a good screen. So, I just had to put it in the hoop.

The Mountaineers forced a turnover on the following possession and Jordan McCabe closed the game out with a pair of free throws.

“We were just flat," said Huggins. “We came back (from the Cancun Challenge) on Thursday night and everybody was tired, so we didn’t go really hard on Friday. Actually, we kind of just went through some things and watched a lot of film. Yesterday, we just didn’t have any pop. We were really blah yesterday. Then, today at shoot-around, we were the same way. We have a bunch of young guys that have never been through the travel part of it, and the travel part is hard. It takes a lot out of you.”

West Virginia will meet old Big East foe St. Johns Saturday at noon inside the Madison Square Garden on FS1.