MORGANTOWN — After leading by double-digits for most of the game, the West Virginia University men’s basketball team found itself tied at 54 with visiting Northern Colorado with less than seven minutes to play Monday.
That’s when senior Jermaine Haley and sophomore Derek Culver took over for the Mountaineers, leading WVU down the stretch to a 69-61 win against the visiting Bears in the first game of the Cancun Challenge.
Haley finished Monday’s win with a team-high 18 points and 12 rebounds, while Culver — who Huggins elected to bench for all of the first half and the first few minutes of the second half — scored 13 points to go with five rebounds in a little more than 11 minutes on the court.
“I thought we played pretty well, pretty hard and then we kind of stopped playing,” WVU coach Bob Huggins said after the game. “They took advantage of us.
“I think the whole thing started in the first half where we got up, and then, we got a little giddy with it and threw it around a little bit. We didn’t guard. We quit guarding the way we were guarding. We guarded pretty well for a while, and when the score was tied we guarded better again.”
The Mountaineers (3-0) led by as many as 17 in the first half against the Bears, but a long cold streak in the second half let the visitors cut in to and eventually erase West Virginia’s lead.
“We just took our foot off the gas, which has kind of been the story of our team except the last game,” Haley said. “I think we need to do a lot better job of finishing our opponent. We’ve just got to play physical and aggressive the whole 40 minutes and not play lackadaisical when we get up.”
Culver, an All-Big 12 second team selection last season, warmed up with the Mountaineers on Monday but when the game started he was on the bench with a t-shirt on rather than in his usual spot in the starting lineup. That shirt stayed on for all of the first half and then to start the second half before he got into the game.
Huggins said he liked what Culver brought to the table for West Virginia when he eventually got in the game, but the choice to sit the standout sophomore for the long stretch to start was his and only offered vague reasoning for the move.
“Obviously, he played pretty well in the second half,” Huggins said. “I thought he was pretty strong with the ball. he played well. I decided not to play him [in the first half]. We’re going to do it right. We’re going to do it right, and we’re all going to be on the same page.”
Haley’s productive game gave him his first double-double of the season and the third of his career with WVU. When he was on, he was West Virginia’s best player against the Bears. The trick, Huggins said, is getting him to be able to consistently produce at that level.
Freshman forward Oscar Tshiebwe followed up his strong performance last week against rival Pitt by coming back to earth a bit. Tshiebwe played not quite 19 minutes Monday, finishing with four points and seven rebounds. Guard Taz Sherman chipped in with eight points, while Emmitt Matthews scored six points — all in the first half.
For Northern Colorado, forward Bodie Hume scored a team-high 18 points while guard Kai Edwards was the only other Bear to hit double-digits in scoring with 12 points.
WVU continues play at the Coliseum in the Cancun Challenge on Friday when the Mountaineers host Boston University, then next week the team travels to Mexico to finish the tournament. While in Cancun, WVU is scheduled to take on Northern Iowa then either Wichita State or South Carolina.
“The better they are, then a win over a good team gets you a lot of points,” Huggins said. “We didn’t have any control over it, but I’m glad [the schedule for the Cancun Challenge] happened that way. I watched Northern Iowa play [Northern Colorado], and they’re good. They have more guys who could make shots than this team had. With the way we guarded against these guys, we’ll struggle against Northern Iowa.”