MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — In the wake of West Virginia’s turnover-filled first loss of the season at St. John’s last Saturday, coach Bob Huggins placed a heavy emphasis on better passing heading into the Mountaineers’ Thursday night game with Austin Peay.
The Mountaineers started a recent practice with a deflated ball to prevent them from falling into their pesky habit of dribbling too much.
“They had a ball with air later on. We just started practice with one [with no air],” Huggins said. “It had air, it just didn’t bounce.”
West Virginia had no problem bouncing the visiting Governors, moving the ball around far more crisply for an 84-53 win.
Most of the better passes came from some unexpected sources.
Mountaineer forwards Gabe Osabuohein (5), Derek Culver (3), Emmitt Matthews Jr. (2) and Oscar Tshiebwe (2) combined for 12 of West Virginia’s 21 assists as Huggins used the high post to his team’s advantage.
“We did the things [tonight] that we worked on [this week],” Huggins said. “We’ve been so stagnant. We wanted movement. That’s the first time we’ve really ran any kind of motion offense. We’ve been running sets trying to take advantage of our size, and we’ve played a lot of people who have basically packed it back in.
“I thought that part of it was good.”
West Virginia found itself with plenty of easy shot opportunities, finishing 34 of 67 (50.7 percent) from the field. Matthews and Tshiebwe were the biggest beneficiaries, each finishing with double-doubles. Matthews had a team-high 16 points and 10 rebounds, while Tshiebwe added 14 points and 10 boards.
Matthews was effective no matter the distance, throwing down an alley-oop dunk to go along with hitting two of his three attempts from three-point range. For the season, Matthews has already matched last season’s total with 14 threes, but on 26 fewer shots.
“He shot it really well, just like in the first four or five games,” Huggins said. “Guys like him are much better when he can use his length, use his athleticism. He’s not the thickest, strongest guy. Guys like him need space to be able to move. I thought [the scheme] helped him out a lot.”
Austin Peay (4-5) did not shoot it very well. The Governors ended the game on a 6-0 run to finish 34.5 percent from the field (19 of 55), but their fate was already sealed after firing just 25 percent from the field in the first half. They also lacked the outside firepower to overcome their size disadvantage, finishing 1-for-14 from three-point range.
Austin Peay forward Terry Taylor, who came in averaging 22.5 points per game, scored a game-high 19.
West Virginia’s size advantage over the Governors was made obvious by the game’s rebounding margin, which ended up 50-28 in the Mountaineers’ favor. WVU also outscored Austin Peay 46-28 in the paint.
West Virginia committed five turnovers in the first six minutes, but settled down until another spate of turnovers late in the game brought them up to 14. The Mountaineers had 22 turnovers in their 70-68 loss at St. John’s on Saturday.
“At times, our ball security is not what it needs to be,” Huggins said. “Until we get better at that, we are going to struggle like we did early in the game. If you don’t turn it over and you get out in transition, then we are a different team.”
By the numbers
West Virginia struggled again at the free-throw line, finishing 10-for-16 (62.5 percent) from the charity stripe. However, the Mountaineers closed the game with a relative flourish, hitting five straight free throws after misfiring on six of their first 11 attempts. WVU finished the St. John’s game 5-for-12 from the line… Guard Sean McNeil added nine points and four rebounds in 16 minutes off the bench. West Virginia finished with a plus-20 point differential with McNeil on the floor. Only Tshiebwe fared better in that regard with a plus-22 in his 21 minutes
It’s a quick, NCAA tournament-like turnaround for West Virginia. The Mountaineers host Nicholls State on Saturday at 2 p.m.