West Virginia punishes Monmouth with strong second half

CONWAY, S.C. — The frustration was clear on Bob Huggins’ face Thursday, as yet another West Virginia pass intended for a teammate sailed out of bounds and into the crowd.

When words and cold stares from the coach would no longer do, Huggins went with the face-in-the-hands look more than once.

West Virginia put up a dominant defensive front in the second half of its 71-53 victory against Monmouth, a first-round win at the Myrtle Beach Invitational. But the Mountaineers’ struggling offense and 18 mostly bad turnovers were hard to ignore.

“We just have to slow down and be more patient,” said West Virginia forward Esa Ahmad, who battled foul trouble most of the game but still finished with 16 points. “We have to learn to trust the offense.”

Especially after committing 19 turnovers in a season-opening loss against Buffalo.

“It’s very concerning,” Huggins said. “It’s better than the other day, but not by much.”

West Virginia advanced to play Western Kentucky at 9 p.m. on Friday. The Hilltoppers beat Valparaiso, 83-71 in the first round.

“I got to see a little bit of their game,” Huggins said. “Our bus driver took the scenic route to get here. Forty-seven minutes is a long time to get to a game.”

In the end, it was still a recovery from that Buffalo loss, one that knocked the Mountaineers (1-1) out of the AP Top 25 for the first time since 2015.

After holding a 36-31 halftime lead, in which Monmouth (0-4) held a lead for more than eight minutes, West Virginia was finally able to use its size advantage and defensive pressure to wear down the Hawks.

“Their bodies are so big and strong and they have one of the best strength programs in the country,” Monmouth coach King Rice said. “Coach Huggins goes that way to wear you down. Our kids got a little tired at the end of the game.

“We battled West Virginia for 30 minutes. We were down six after we fouled them so many times. Their bodies wore our bodies down.”

The Mountaineers used the 18 first-half fouls called on Monmouth to produce 17 points at the foul line. In all, West Virginia made 23-of-37 free throws compared to Monmouth’s 10-of-18.

Beetle Bolden said WVU’s defensive effort in the second half was simply a matter of being more focused.

Huggins said he backed up the Mountaineers’ full-court pressure to three-fourths of the court instead of full court.

Whatever it was, Monmouth was held to just 7 of 23 shooting (30.4 percent) from the field in the second half and West Virginia came away with a 39-32 advantage on the boards.

All of it happened in front of a sold out crowd of 3,307, in which it seemed like 3,300 of them were decked out in West Virginia’s garb.

“That didn’t surprise us,” Bolden said. “We have the best fans in the world. We’re lucky to have a fan base like that.”

Among those in the crowd was former standout Willie Akers, who saw the Mountaineers finally able to put together enough defense in the second half to put away an opponent.

“I don’t think we’re very physical,” Huggins said. “The whole idea of pressure is to wear people down.”

Sagaba Konate added 14 points and eight rebounds and Bolden added nine points. Jordan McCabe came off the bench to add nine points in 16 minutes.

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