MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Rico Gathers scored a basket less than 3 minutes into the game and didn’t score another.
Taurean Prince put up 10 points but couldn’t hit the broad side of a Zooperstar.
Baylor’s big, bad weapons were neutralized by West Virginia and subsequently demoted to cheerleaders by their coach Scott Drew, who saw a 19-point, second-half hole and opted to let the B unit take a crack.
Kudos to Drew, whose unsungs temporarily made it a contest, before the Mountaineers—those first-place Mountaineers—finished the drill convincingly, 80-69.
Now, after several weeks of two-way, three-way and four-way ties, the Big 12 lead is solely the domain of West Virginia.
Breathe that in. Let it marinate. Seven days after seeming helpless in Florida, the Mountaineers are the No. 1 team in the No. 1 RPI conference.
Some players were made aware at halftime that Big 12 co-leader Oklahoma had fallen at Kansas State. Not Devin Williams, though. So tunnel-focused on giving Gathers a full night’s work, Williams wouldn’t have noticed a North Korean rocket landing at center court.
“Gathers is a double-double machine. He’s their horse,” Williams said. “I feel like I was dialed in and did everything I was supposed to do as far as listening to the scouting report.”
Top priority was “taking away the left shoulder” Gathers uses to clear space around the rim and shoot 56 percent this season. Based on Saturday’s 1-of-9 shooting line, Gathers’ left shoulder was a nonfactor—as was the rest of his person. He spent the final 9:21 on the bench.
Prince missed 12 of his 17 shots, was lifted at the 8:19 mark, and returned only for the last 63 seconds.
“Rico and TP did a great job on the bench encouraging, communicating and talking,” said Drew, who would have greatly preferred them to be rebounding, guarding and scoring.
The plus-minus numbers leap off the stat sheet: Gathers at minus-18 and Prince at minus-24, compared to their West Virginia matchups, Williams (plus-13) and Nathan Adrian (plus-17).
Adrian scored a season-high 11 points and replicated his Iowa State momentum swing with another late 3-pointer. Over a four-game stretch he has re-emerged as a stretch four by making 6-of-8 from 3-point range. Yet falling shots don’t fully explain his rejuvenation as much as the nine rebounds and the pestering defense he inflicted on Prince.
“We tried to put Nate on (Prince) because Nate’s got size and he’s got good feet,” Huggins said. “You watch film and Prince is so long that he gets good looks against smaller guys. I thought Nate did a really good job.”
Perhaps good enough to remain a starter once the suspended Jonathan Holton resurfaces, though the order of appearance on this team matters little. Leading scorer Jaysean Paige is content coming off the bench. Tarik Phillip talks copious amounts of trash in-game but hasn’t complained a peep about making zero starts.
“The great thing about our guys is they just want to win,” Huggins said.
Four weeks from now, when they face Baylor on the final day of the regular season, the Mountaineers might be gunning to win the conference championship.