It wasn’t necessarily pretty, but the West Virginia University men’s basketball team opened its 2020-21 season with a victory, holding off South Dakota State 79-71 in the quarterfinals of the Bad Boy Mowers Crossover Classic Wednesday night in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
West Virginia got a career-high 23 points from sophomore guard Deuce McBride, and junior guard Sean McNeil also exceeded his career-high by scoring 16 points. Senior guard Taz Sherman chipped in 14 points, though WVU received just seven points each from its starting frontcourt players of Derek Culver, Emmitt Matthews and Oscar Tshiebwe.
Culver did pull down 14 rebounds, though West Virginia managed only a 41-39 advantage on the boards over the smaller Jackrabbits.
“We knew they were going to get some offensive boards. They are one of the best rebounding teams in the country year after year,” stated SDSU head coach Eric Henderson of West Virginia. “It was important for us make sure that if they did get them, to stay between them and the basket and try to make them score over the top of us.
“Our guys fought and did a good job protecting the paint. [West Virginia] made some shots that maybe they haven’t made in the past. Kudos to their kids, because they stepped up and made some tough ones.”
WVU finished the game converting 8 of 32 3-point shots. That’s more attempts from beyond the arc than West Virginia took in any single game last season.
Sherman was 4 of 6 from 3-point range, while McNeil was 2 of 9.
As a team, the Mountaineers weren’t necessary accurate from anywhere on the floor. They made just 39% of their field goal attempts (30 of 77). Last season WVU was just 3-7 when making less than 40% from the field.
“We’re a team that likes to throw it close at least part of the time,” explained West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins. [SDSU] did a good job of packing it in and really taking away our post play.
“They are a lot better than our guys thought they were. When I watched their games, I was like, ‘Wow, these guys are good.’”
South Dakota State’s collapsing defense forced WVU into just two turnovers in the entire game. Meanwhile SDSU had 14 giveaways, all while making 27 of 62 field goal attempts (43.5%) and 7 of 19 from 3-point range (36.8%).
“They are really good,” Huggins said of the Jackrabbits, who were 22-10 last season. “They are very well coached. They make shots. They do a good job of handling the ball and creating shots for one another. I think they are really good.”
It was an up-and-down game for the Mountaineers, and it was that way from the very beginning.
They held the lead for most of the first half, enjoying an edge as large as five, but SDSU showed early that it was going to compete on boards with the bigger WVU front line. The Jackrabbits outrebounded West Virginia 24-18 in the first half. WVU made just 14 of 36 shots in the opening 20 minutes, including only 4 of 16 from 3-point range. That allowed South Dakota State to stay close, even though it made just 13 of its 33 field goal attempts and 2 of 7 on 3-pointers in the opening stanza.
The WVU lead was 37-32 at halftime, but it came out of the locker room after the break with a strong offensive surge, as it outscored the Jacks 10-4 to begin the period. SDSU had only two turnovers in the first half but gave it away seven times in the first four minutes of the second half.
South Dakota State settled in, though, and stayed within shouting distancing, narrowing West Virginia’s advantage to 68-64 with 5:56 left to play on a Douglas Wilson tip-in.
The Mountaineers responded with five quick points to give themselves a bit of a cushion heading into the final four minutes.
The Jackrabbits wouldn’t go away easily, though, cutting WVU’s advantage back to four one more time, 73-69, on an and-one by Wilson with 1:50 left to play.
“We knew West Virginia was a big, physical team and we knew for us to be in game, we had to match their physicality,” said Wilson, who led the Jacks in scoring with 17 points. “I thought we did a good job of that, outside of giving up a couple offensive rebounds [actually 17].”
Just when South Dakota State seemed poised for the upset, West Virginia reached down for one final spurt, scoring six straight points in a 36-second span to secure the victory.
With the opening-round triumph, WVU moved on in the winners bracket semifinal.
Memphis, a 73-56 winner over St. Mary's, and Western Kentucky, which defeated Northern Iowa 93-87 Wednesday, will meet in the first semifinal at noon Thursday.
In the midst of a global pandemic, the Mountaineers were able to get their 2020-21 season off the ground, which is something many speculated would not happen.
“I think the way we ended the year last year, we were playing well at the end and we were looking forward to the conference tournament and looking forward to the NCAA Tournament, and it ended so abruptly, that we were just looking forward to being able to play this year,” noted Huggins.
“I told the guys in the locker room that we’re on a day-to-day basis,” he admitted, thinking of the schedule changes already caused by the coronavirus. “We don’t know how many more games we’re going to be able to play or anything else. We need to enjoy and cherish the ones we get.”