MORGANTOWN — Derek Culver was not in his usual starting role for the West Virginia University men’s basketball team on Sunday, but the talented sophomore forward certainly made the most of his minutes off the bench against visiting Rhode Island.
Culver finished with a team-high 25 points -- also a career high -- to go with 11 rebounds as the Mountaineers held off the Rams down the stretch for an 86-81 win at the WVU Coliseum.
These two teams met last season, with Rhode Island taking a an 83-73 win at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut. WVU coach Bob Huggins and several players mentioned they were not pleased with how the Rams mocked the Mountaineers after that loss, with West Virginia (7-0) sophomore Emmitt Matthews telling reporters the memory of how Rhode Island (5-3) acted after the game last season was, “the only motivation” leading into Sunday’s game. Still, Huggins was not entirely happy with how his team came out on Sunday.
“Obviously [there was] not enough [motivation from last year’s loss],” Huggins said. “We were just flat. 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 have a bunch of young guys who have never been through the travel part of it, and the travel part is hard. It takes a lot out of you.”
Culver didn’t get into Sunday’s game until after the first media timeout in the first half, but made a near-instant impact for the Mountaineers. He finished the first half with 12 points while Matthews led the team at the break with 14 points and WVU took a 44-33 lead into the locker room.
“[Culver] played well,” Huggins said. “You know he’s able to handle a lot of physical play He’s a big, strong guy. We ended up going to him a lot more than what we wanted to initially. Then, he didn’t do a really good job of throwing out of doubles and things. We have to spend some time with that.”
Rhode Island refused to roll over in the second half, however, and the Rams made things interesting down the stretch. The Rams battled the Mountaineers for the first 10 minutes of the second half and tied the game 60-60 on a Jeff Dowtin basket with 9:28 to play. WVU forward Oscar Tshiebwe had not played well in the little time he had been on the floor to that point, but the standout freshman helped West Virginia wrestle back some momentum with consecutive baskets and an “And 1” opportunity following the latter.
Tshiebwe finished with 11 points and nine rebounds almost exclusively in the game’s final 20 minutes.
“Most people take 11 and nine,” Huggins said. “I mean, [Tshiebwe] is getting better and better, it’s just going to take a little bit of time.”
Even with Tshiebwe, as well as senior Jermaine Haley chipping in with Culver, West Virginia was unable to put the Rams away. Rhode Island cut the WVU lead to just one point with 34 seconds remaining in Sunday’s game, but a Jermaine Haley basket from close-range and some foul shots in the final seconds — including a pair from sophomore guard Jordan McCabe for his only two points of the game — secured the win for West Virginia and kept the Mountaineers among the nation’s unbeaten teams.
Four West Virginia players scored at least 10 points Sunday. In addition to the 25 from Culver and 11 from Tshiebwe, Haley had 18 points while Matthews failed to score in the second half but still finished with 14. As a team, West Virginia struggled again shooting the ball at times as it went 4 for 13 from 3-point range.
“I have guys we want to play, but it’s hard to play [them] because they don’t know what they’re doing,” Huggins said. “You’re looking at how people play you. You have things to run in those situations and it’s hard whenever somebody is always in the the way. It’s not their fault, really, they just don’t know what they are doing. The last play for Jermaine was a set that has been good to us, but why didn’t those other guys help?”
Rhode Island was led Sunday by a prolific scoring performance out of guard Fatts Russell. Last season, Russell got 18 points in the win against the Mountaineers and on Sunday, despite the loss, he was even better — scoring a game-high 32 points to go with five assists and five steals.
“For whatever reason, we did a really poor job of doing what we had gotten decent at,” Huggins said. “You get a little bit tired, and you lag a little bit. We just let [Russell] split us too much.”
Next up for West Virginia is a trip to Madison Square Garden on Saturday to take on St. John’s as part of the Big 12 and Big East scheduling alliance. Tip between the Mountaineers and Red Strom in that game is scheduled for Noon with the broadcast on Fox Sports 1.