MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Derek Culver has a secret. Or at least he had one for a brief time following West Virginia’s 86-81 home win over Rhode Island Sunday afternoon.
“Don’t let Huggs hear this,” Culver said. “I don’t like coming off the bench. But I like how it gives me a better feel of the game. I watch the offense. I watch what the other team is doing. And they haven’t seen me. So when I go in, I can capitalize off their weaknesses as soon as I get in. It gives me a little feather in my cap.”
Huggins, of course, did hear it only a few minutes later.
“Good,” he deadpanned. “I’ll sit him the next game.”
Culver led the Mountaineers (7-0) with 25 points and 11 rebounds, recording his first double-double of the season. he now has 10 career double-doubles. The sophomore power forward from Youngstown, Ohio was second on the team with 31 minutes played even though he spent the first 6:20 of the game on the bench.
Huggins started Gabe Osabuohein in Culver’s place, reckoning it was a better defensive matchup against Rhode Island’s guard-dominant offense.
“We thought it was the best thing to do for this game,” Huggins said. “Derek came off the bench with more energy than anybody we had.”
West Virginia led by as many as 14 in the first half and held a 44-34 lead at the break, but didn’t stave off the Rams (5-3) until the game’s final minute.
Rhode Island guard Fatts Russell brought a game as memorable as his name, leading the Rams back into the picture with a game-high 32 points, five assists and five steals.
Russell was the first West Virginia opponent to record a 30-5-5 game since McNeese State’s Tierre Brown on Dec. 4, 1999. Coincidentally, that McNeese team was coached by current Mountaineers assistant Ron Everhart.
Despite his outstanding performance, the Rams struggled to get the ball into Russell’s hands when they needed to in the final minute. His final shot came with 1:20 left when he was rejected by WVU big man Oscar Tshiebwe on a drive to the post.
When Jermaine Haley made a layup to extend West Virginia’s lead to 84-81 with 9 seconds to play, it was obvious where Rhode Island would go for its final shot. But the Rams never managed to take it as Tyrese Martin’s attempted pass to Russell went out of bounds.
As if West Virginia’s 7-0 start didn’t make it obvious enough, the win over the Rams marked another clear sign of progress from last season. Rhode Island beat WVU 83-70 playing with the same starting five a year ago.
Culver was suspended for last year’s game and made it a point to make his presence felt.
“I didn’t get to play against them last year due to being a knucklehead and all that,” Culver said. “I feel everything played out really well.”
By the numbers
Jermaine Haley scored West Virginia’s first eight points and finished with 18 after scoring the final field goal of the game. Haley also hit an improbable three-pointer from the sideline as the shot clock expired midway late in the second half… Both teams finished with 14 turnovers… The Rams only played eight players, allowing for a 38-12 WVU edge in bench scoring… Tshiebwe had a near double-double with 11 points and nine rebounds… Emmitt Matthews contributed 14 points in a team-high 36 minutes.
Three-point shooting remains a weakness for WVU, which was 4-for-13 from behind the arc. Huggins isn’t alarmed despite his team shooting 30.9 percent from 3-point range this season.
“You can’t name a team that hasn’t gone through cold spells in the course of the season,” Huggins said. “We’re hoping we have enough guys who can make shots that we’ll sub them in and they’ll make shots.”
The Mountaineers go back to an old stomping ground for a Big 12-Big East Challenge game against St. John’s at Madison Square Garden. WVU used to play at the Garden annually for the Big East tournament, including 2010’s memorable championship run.
The Mountaineers and Red Storm (6-2) tip at noon Saturday.