WACO, Texas — Turns out, West Virginia was worried about the wrong Baylor freshman.
With top-billed recruit Isaiah Austin struggling through a quiet night, Rico Gathers produced a career-best performance of 22 points and nine rebounds off the bench fueling Baylor’s 80-60 runaway victory.
“That’s one thing we’re pretty proficient at — helping people have career nights,” said West Virginia coach Bob Huggins, whose team had won three consecutive games.
Brady Heslip, who sank five 3-pointers during last season’s matchup between these teams in Las Vegas, burned WVU again by making 6-of-9 from 3-point range on his way to 20 points. He scored 16 of those in the second half when Baylor outscored the Mountaineers 49-33 to pull away.
“I’ve been watching West Virginia since I was 13 or 14, so I know their style of basketball. It was easy to get prepared for them and get my mind right.” — Baylor freshman Rico Gathers
“If you leave Heslip open, he’s going to make shots,” said Huggins. “Everybody in America knows that … except the seven or eight guys I had guarding him.”
The loss dropped WVU to 5-9 away from Morgantown this season, including 0-7 against teams with winning records.
WVU’s Eron Harris made 6-of-9 shots to finish with 19 points — his eighth double-digit scoring output in nine games. But he freshman guard was disappointed by the way his team got flattened after trailing only 31-27 at the half.
“We just stopped competing,” said Harris. “If you guys saw our intensity drop, then it probably did. We just didn’t compete in the second half.”
Austin, the 7-foot-1 center and Big 12 double-doubles leader who’s projected as an NBA lottery pick, finished with a season-low five points on 2-of-8 shooting, one rebound and four fouls.
That left Gathers to be the main man inside. The freshman from LaPlace, La., had a dunk with 6:46 left that capped a 15-4 run for Baylor (16-8, 7-4) and extended the lead to 63-44. Gathers and several of his Baylor teammates woofed at players on the WVU bench as the margin ballooned.
“I’ve been watching West Virginia since I was 13 or 14, so I know their style of basketball,” said Gathers, who finished 7-of-8 from the floor and 8-of-10 from the foul line (where he had been shooting a paltry 44 percent). “It was easy to get prepared for them and get my mind right.”
Deniz Kilicli added 13 points and five rebounds for West Virginia (12-12, 5-6 Big 12), but he received a second-half technical for rolling the ball out of bounds after he was whistled for a rebounding foul.
Baylor point guard Pierre Jackson, the Big 12′s top scorer entering the night at 19.1 points per game, scored 15 but did his best work as a facilitator. He handed out nine assists, adding to his league-leading average of six per game.
The Mountaineers made 43 percent of their shots from the floor after shooting 51 percent during the previous three-game winning streak. Baylor shot 50 percent overall, including 59 percent after the half.
Baylor coach Scott Drew was surprised by how comfortably his team won considering the slow night endured by his starting big men.
“I think at the start of the game, if you would have said Cory (Jefferson) is going to have five (points) and five (rebounds), Isaiah’s going to have five-and-one and you’re going to be able to win 80-60, I think people would say, ‘Really?’”
WVU outrebounded the Bears 34-23 but committed 18 turnovers to Baylor’s nine.
“We threw the ball to ‘em,” Huggins said.
Baylor scored 23 points off turnovers compared to 11 for West Virginia.
Jackson wasn’t the only player making crisp passes for Baylor, which rang up 23 assists on its 27 field goals. A.J. Walton added five assists and backup shooting guard Gary Franklin added three.
“I think the guards really set the table — 23 assists, only 9 turnovers and 27 made field goals,” Drew said. “That’s pretty impressive stuff.”
Matt Humphrey checked in midway through the second half with WVU tailing 51-40. Humphrey had not played since WVU’s home win over TCU on Jan. 23, missing a span of five games. Humphrey played three minutes and saw his only shot, a contested 3-pointer, rim out.
Volodymyr Gerun also entered in the second half, only his sixth appearance of the season. The Ukrainian forward scored two points in five minutes.