MORGANTOWN — The West Virginia University men’s basketball team’s quest to put a poor 2018-19 season in the past got off to a good start on Friday.
The Mountaineers were tested at times, but held off a pesky visitor in Akron for a 94-84 win to open the season at the WVU Coliseum.
Highly-touted newcomers were the story coming into Friday’s game, but a pair of players who were in that role last season led the Mountaineers past the Zips.
Senior Jermaine Haley and sophomore Derek Culver each scored a team-high 16 points in the win to get West Virginia’s season kicked off on a positive note.
“I thought we did some good things,” WVU coach Bob Huggins said. “I thought we did some bad things. I’ve said all along I think we can shoot the ball and score the ball. At times we go too fast. We got faster than we’re capable of going. At times, guys want to show everybody what they can’t do. When we slow down catching the ball ... we dropped the ball two or three times and dropped the ball twice at the end because we tried to do something with it and look to make the next play before we made the play we needed to make.”
Akron (0-1) ran out to a quick lead to start the game but it was short-lived. After leading by six points just two minutes into the game, the Mountaineers woke up and climbed back into the game. WVU tied the game at 11 on an Emmitt Matthews 3-pointer with 15 minutes to play in the first half, and another Matthews 3-pointer on the next possession gave West Virginia the lead for good.
“It’s hard probably for either team to get in any type of rhythm when there are 50 fouls,” Akron coach John Groce said. “I think it was 71 free throws attempted between the two teams. [It is] hard to get in a rhythm for either team. We’re going to have to take a look at it, because we’ve been pretty consistently at Akron and throughout our career, one of the best teams in the country at defending without fouling. I’m a little disappointed in that today.”
The Zips, however, did not go away.
WVU led by as many as 16 in the first half and in the second half, but Akron continued to battle back.
Huggins said during the week that Akron was a team that can shoot the ball well, and at times that was true Friday. The Zips had four players score in double-digits against the Mountaineers, led by a 20-point effort from forward Xerius Williams. Guards Channel Banks and Loren Cristian Jackson each scored 16 while fellow guard Tyler Cheese had 15.
“I thought we were atrocious [on defense],” Huggins said. “We didn’t guard the bounce, we didn’t guard the ball screen. We didn’t do what we practiced to do. They’re good. That’s a team that could make a run at the MAC championship, particularly if they shoot the ball the way they shot the ball today, because they spread you out so far with their ability to make shots. It really opens up the floor for them.”
In addition to Culver and Haley’s double-figure scoring totals, Matthews finished with 13 points while freshman Miles “Duece” McBride, in his first collegiate game, scored 11 for the Mountaineers. Culver led West Virginia with seven rebounds while Haley had six. Freshman forward Oscar Tshiebwe, a five-star recruit and McDonald’s All-American last season as a high school senior, scored five points to go with five rebounds in his collegiate debut.
As a team, WVU had a slight edge on the boards with 37 rebounds compared to Akron’s 36. Rebounding has been a calling card for Huggins’ standout frontcourt players in the past, and the veteran coach was not entirely pleased with his big men’s effort on the boards Friday against the visiting Zips.
“Derek was the best rebounder in the league a year ago,” Huggins said. “He needs to be the best rebounder in the league again. Oscar has made his reputation rebounding the ball. He needs to continue to rebound the ball.”
West Virginia is off for the next week and plays again next Friday at arch-rival Pitt. Tip-off for that game is scheduled for 7 p.m. at the Panthers’ Petersen Events Center.