MORGANTOWN — The West Virginia University men’s basketball team was not short on motivation coming into Saturday’s game against visiting Kansas State.
The last time the two teams met, K-State stunned a listless WVU team in Manhattan. The last time West Virginia played a game period, it was another subpar performance for the Mountaineers in a loss at Texas Tech.
Saturday’s game was not always pretty — in fact it rarely was — but West Virginia, led by sophomore forward Derek Culver’s double-double, bounced back from its loss earlier this week to split the season series with the Wildcats in a 66-57 win.
Kansas State (9-12, 2-6 Big 12) had trouble slowing Culver down all afternoon at the Coliseum as the Youngstown, Ohio native finished with a game-high 19 points and 14 rebounds.
“We were much more ready to play than when we went out there,” WVU coach Bob Huggins said. “They’re hard to play against. [K-State coach] Bruce [Weber] does a great job. They spread you out offensively, and defensively they’re really physical and take a lot of things away from you.”
West Virginia (17-4, 5-3 Big 12) did not get off to the best start Saturday. A little more than two minutes into the game, Huggins was fed up with the effort he was seeing from his five starters. During a stoppage in play, the veteran Mountaineers coach — who passed Adolph Rupp on the all-time wins list Saturday and now sits at 877 for his career — put five new players on the floor.
“We’re going to get our ass back on defense,” Huggins said of the message he was trying to send with the early mass substitutions. “Or you’re coming out.”
The message appeared to be received loud and clear, as WVU went on to hold K-State to an 18-of-49 shooting performance, including a 3-of-17 mark from 3-point range.
“I guess that’s the low of the year for us [in 3-pointers], and it makes it tough,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said. “You know that’s probably why we beat them at our place. We made those shots.”
The Mountaineers were not much better from the floor Saturday, connecting on 21 of 50 field goals with a 6-of-19 mark on 3-pointers attempted. Some of the poor shooting by both teams was caused by good defense, but not all of it.
“It wasn’t a good shooting night for anybody, was it?” Huggins said. “We didn’t shoot it, they didn’t shoot it and it made it an ugly game. I don’t mind ugly games as long as we win them. I thought they did a really good job of spreading us, and I didn’t think we did as good of a job as some other times.
“We turned them loose way too many times, and we’re trying to play some other guys that hadn’t played quite as much because I’m hoping we can make some shots. Thank God Chase [Harler] is making some shots because he’s about the only one. We have guys shooting 20 percent. That isn’t very good. We have a lot of guys in 30 percents. We have to somehow figure out how to make some shots.”
West Virginia led by as many as 14 points in the second half and held the lead for the game’s final 30 minutes. K-State never really went away, however, and unlike recent home blowouts against Texas and TCU, WVU was forced to make some plays down the stretch to hold off the Wildcats.
“They made six 3s and we made three 3s, and it’s nine points,” Weber said. “So, you know you find a way to make one or two of those — some were open and some were forced. Their defense was much better than at our place obviously, but credit to our guys. We’ve made improvements and we’ve battled, but I would like them to play a little sharper and crisp. Part of that is how West Virginia plays.”
Culver was the only WVU player to hit double-digits in scoring, with freshman forward Oscar Tshiebwe and Harler, a senior guard, each finishing with eight points. For K-State, David Sloan scored a team-high 13 points while Xavier Sneed finished with 11.
The Mountaineers return to game action Wednesday, hosting Iowa State. Tipoff is scheduled for 7 p.m with ESPN2 handling the broadcast.
TEXAS TECH 89, WVU 81: There have been times this season — more often than not — when the West Virginia University men’s basketball team has shown its growth and understanding of the way Bob Huggins wants the Mountaineers to play.
Then are are times like Wednesday’s 89-81 loss at Texas Tech. As has been the case in West Virginia’s three previous losses this season, not much went right as the Mountaineers fell flat on the road again against the Red Raiders.
“They were the aggressor,” Huggins said during a postgame radio interview. “We were not the aggressor. When we’ve played well this season, we’ve been the aggressor.”
It was an uncharacteristically bad defensive performance from WVU, which fell into a three-way tie for third place in the Big 12 with TCU and Texas Tech at 4-3 in league play with the loss. The Mountaineers have been the best in the conference at limiting opponents from beyond the 3-point line, but Texas Tech bombed on WVU from distance Wednesday.
The Red Raiders made 11 of their 17 3-point attempts, with many of them made easier thanks to defensive mistakes by West Virginia.
WVU, meanwhile, connected on just 4 of its 18 attempts from distance.
“They shot the ball extremely well, and we did not,” Huggins said. “They shot 65 percent from 3, and we shot 22.
“We gave them step-in shots. From day one we told them we can’t give step-in shots. We have to make them shoot it off the bounce. The two things you can’t do is give up straight-line drives and step-in shots, and we did both of those [Wednesday].”
Making matters worse for West Virginia was an off night from its usually formidable front court duo of Derek Culver and Oscar Tshiebwe. Culver did lead WVU with 16 points, but 14 of those came at the foul line.
Tshiebwe and Culver were each battling foul trouble starting in the first half, with Tshiebwe getting called for a technical foul for apparently taunting a Texas Tech player more than the officials were willing the allow following a blocked shot.
Both Culver, a sophomore, and Tshiebwe, a freshman, have been among the Big 12’s rebounding leaders all season but on Wednesday they, and the rest of the Mountaineers, were soundly beaten on the boards by Texas Tech. The Red Raiders had a nine-rebound advantage, pulling down 32 compared to West Virginia’s 23. Culver, who had two rebounds against TTU, and Tshiebwe, who had three, both average nearly nine rebounds per game.
“We got out-rebounded by a team that should never out-rebound us,” Huggins said. “[Texas Tech] also beat us to every loose ball. It’s a typical deal where I said we better be ready to play, because we’re coming into a deal where they’re desperate. They are going to play hard and going to be ready to play. Our guys haven’t learned that yet.”
Despite the loss, there were several bright spots for the Mountaineers on Wednesday in Lubbock.
Junior forward Gabe Osabuohien picked up some of the slack on offense for WVU with a season-high 15 points. Junior guard Taz Sherman helped in that department as well, setting his own season-high with 11 points, and two of the Mountaineers’ four total 3-pointers came from the junior college transfer.
Culver’s 14-of-16 performance at the foul line could also be a sign of the tide turning for him in that area. Culver, who has been around a 57 percent shooter from the line this season, is no stranger to foul shots at Texas Tech’s United Supermarkets Arena. As a freshman last season, he attempted 24 foul shots (more than any WVU player in a single game in nearly 100 years) in a lopsided loss to the Red Raiders.
Huggins said he’s not ready for a complete makeover of Culver’s approach at the foul line, but he has been working with him on making some minor adjustments during the season.
“At this point, I’m not going to change his shot in the middle of the year,” Huggins said. “I just want to make sure his alignment is OK, because if his alignment is off, he’s going to sling it everywhere.”