MORGANTOWN — West Virginia University may have come home with the trophy presented to the champion of the Bad Boy Mowers Crossover Classic in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, after beating Western Kentucky, 70-64, in the final on Friday, but they certainly came home knowing that despite a No. 15 national ranking they have a lot of work to do.
The Mountaineers played three games — each starkly different from the other — and had to scramble to win each, although the final was certainly the most precarious.
Outhustled and outworked as they fell behind by three in the first half and then down by 10 points with 14:58 left in the game, the Mountaineers had to dig deep to find a way out of the hole they were burying themselves in.
The comeback probably started in the locker room at halftime, even though they did fall further behind in the first five minutes of the second half.
Coach Bob Huggins let them know that they weren’t playing the kind of basketball they are known to play.
“We took some things for granted,” Huggins said after the game. “They played so much harder than we did. Halftime we talked about how much harder we had to play and how much better we had to execute.”
Throughout the first half the Hilltoppers had bedeviled WVU with a series of back cuts that broke players loose for easy shots or dunks. In the first half, WKU shot 51 percent from the floor, which is not the kind of defense Huggins’ teams are known for playing.
“At halftime coach told us we weren’t playing with enough intensity and that we had to stick to our culture,” said guard Miles McBride. “He reminded us it’s a 40-minute game, not 20.”
As it turned out, for WVU it was a 15-minute game and that started after the lead had swelled to 10 points.
Taz Sherman, who came off the bench to score 12 points on 5 for 8 shooting, 2 of 3 from 3-point range, got WVU going with one of those threes.
But it wasn’t the offense that got WVU back into the game. Instead, it was the defense for after that 3-pointer narrowed the gap to seven, Western Kentucky went four minutes without scoring as WVU held them to two points.
“We had a spurt of six possessions where four of them were bad where we let them get back into it,” said Western Kentucky Coach Rick Stansbury.
They did it often with a small lineup on the floor along with Culver and Gabe Osabuohien up front.
Culver was dominant inside offensively, leading WVU with 15 points, but somehow played 29 minutes and grabbed only one rebound while Osabuohien had a strong effect on the outcome, scoring eight points with seven rebounds and five assists.
And in the battle down low with WKU’s star 7-footer, Charles Bassey, Culver willed his way to victory by being more physical.
Still, it was a battle of titans, with Bassey scoring 15 points with eight rebounds and two blocks in just 18 and a half minutes of play.
“He’s a Top 10 player,” Culver said of Bassey, “but everything went well. I wasn’t uncomfortable. I got the moves I wanted. He didn’t take anything away from me.”
West Virginia drew even in the game at 52-52 on a basket by McBride with 8:10 left to play and then asserted itself down the stretch.
Sherman followed with a 3, McBride with two free throws and WVU had a lead it wouldn’t relinquish.
And so it was the Mountaineers brought home the hardware, something that was important to them after all they had gone through to get here.
“It was a big accomplishment, not only for us, but for the state. We came here to come back with the trophy,” said Culver, who also brought home the MVP award.
“It’s always big to win for the state of West Virginia,” McBride said. “Coach always talks about how we represent more than than just us. We represent the state.”
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