MORGANTOWN — Though Oklahoma State mounted a 9-0 run in the second half to momentarily trim West Virginia’s lead to seven points, Tuesday night’s 70-60 win for the Mountaineers may well have been the team’s most complete effort to date, especially against a Power Five opponent.
WVU led by as many as 18 and, after seizing control with a 12-2 run early in the first half, largely coasted to a pivotal win in the Big 12 Conference which pushed the Mountaineers’ overall record to 13-2 and its league mark to 2-1.
Six of WVU’s next eight games come against ranked teams, starting with a trip to No. 9 Kansas on Saturday. With the victory over the Cowboys and one last Saturday over Kansas State, the Mountaineers were able to grind out wins they likely will need in the coming weeks.
Perhaps more importantly, WVU has also flashed significant improvement in early areas of need, most notably on defense, rebounding and free throw shooting, the latter of which proved to be extremely important in Tuesday’s outcome as West Virginia finished 21 for 22 from the charity stripe.
“We hit them pretty hard about the free throws and I think they’re doing a much, much better job of being consistent in working at making free throws,” WVU coach Bob Huggins said. “We put a little drill in that I ran for a long, long time. I hadn’t done it for a while and I did it once and [former player and current assistant] Coach [Erik] Martin remembers doing it at Cincinnati and he hated it. So, anything they hate is generally pretty good, and all it is is making them go to the line and making them shoot it with a little pressure on them. It’s a team drill. It’s not an individual drill and I think that’s helped us.”
To Huggins’ point, West Virginia is 67 for 84 from the foul line in its last four games, a mark of 79.7%. That would rank sixth nationally for the season, and even the small four-game sample has brought the Mountaineers up to 66% for the season.
Then there’s rebounding. That issue was apparent from the start as the Mountaineers were beaten 48-33 and 36-20 on the glass by Oakland and Pitt, respectively, in WVU’s first two games. While West Virginia still isn’t exactly a world beater in terms of rebounding, it is much more respectable, having brought its season totals up to a minus-14 difference (528-514), an average of under rebound one per game.
Defensively, the story is similar. After yielding shooting percentages of 49% or higher in three straight games against Marquette (52.6%), Clemson (55%) and Eastern Kentucky (49.1%), the Mountaineers have held nine straight opponents to 42.4% or lower while limiting teams to under 40% five times in that stretch. That’s including a mark of 39.7% for the Cowboys on Tuesday.
West Virginia has shown marked and steady progress in all three areas, and Huggins said that while the process wasn’t always enjoyable, it was necessary.
“I can’t speak for them, but it was a grind on me,” Huggins said. “We would think we would get something fixed and then try to move on and do something else, then we didn’t do what we had been working on.
“I think our older guys have done a really good job. [Jalen Bridges] has done a terrific job, [Kedrian Johnson] has done a really good job, Taz [Sherman] … of helping those younger guys. It’s good when those guys are helping you coach. Those younger guys have a lot of respect for those guys.
“Our help defense is much, much better and we’re rebounding the ball better because we’re doing the fundamental things that make teams good rebounding teams. Not all the time, but more consistent than we did before.”
With the stretch that WVU has looming in front of it — a gauntlet that will go a long way in terms of postseason positioning and seeding — all of those things are sure to be a necessity. Yet as tough as it promises to be, it also brings with it opportunities to improve the team’s standing within the conference and nationally.
That’s what senior forward Gabe Osabuohien said his first thought was about what lies ahead. While a month or two ago, holding their own against the likes of No. 1 Baylor, the Jayhawks, No. 19 Texas Tech and No. 15 Iowa State may have seemed far-fetched, the Mountaineers now seemed poised to possibly make some noise.
“I’m super excited to see where we can go with this team,” Bridges said. “You can tell we’re starting to buy in and getting that chemistry going. The sky is the limit and we’ll go as far as we want to go.”