MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Propelled by a career-high two points from guard Spencer Macke, West Virginia cruised to an 83-57 over visiting Nicholls State at WVU Coliseum on Saturday afternoon.
Yes, the game was already several minutes out-of-hand by the time the freshman walk-on entered to play the final 1:38 against the Colonels.
But from the looks of it, no moment this season has meant so much to Macke’s West Virginia teammates.
Taz Sherman, the guy checking out of the game so Macke could check in, turned around and coaxed the WVU student section to get on its feet before heading to the bench.
“People don’t see the hard work he puts in,” Sherman said. “For a walk-on, it’s not easy. You’re not going to play every game. When he gets in, we root for him as much as possible. That’s our guy. He’s a part of the team. It feels good for me to see him in the game like that. ‘Smackie’ is a guy you want on your team.”
Sherman was only getting the fans warmed up.
When Colonel Dexter McClanahan was whistled for a technical foul with 1:15 left, Bob Huggins elected to have Macke shoot the free throws.
This was a terrifying prospect to the 5-foot-11, 170-pound walk-on who was primarily recruited by Division III schools with names like Adrian and Dominican. He had not scored in his previous two late-game appearances this season.
“I didn’t want to airball it,” Macke said. “That’s all I could think of. I said a prayer when I was going to the line.”
Macke drained both free throws without the ball appearing to nick even a millimeter of rim, and everyone remaining at the Coliseum lost their collective minds.
Emmitt Matthews ran up behind Macke and gave him a hug. Other teammates dished out high-fives. Every player on West Virginia’s bench left their seats, the same way they do when someone throws down a posterizing dunk or drains a three-pointer when the shot clock expires. Assistant coach Ron Everhart pumped his arms in celebration.
“I didn’t even get to see my teammates reacting,” Macke said. “I was so nervous.”
Then, the student section gave the final seal of approval with chants of “Macke! Macke!”
“I love it,” he said. “That makes me feel so good.”
Fittingly, the whole scene played out in front of Macke’s grandmother, who was at the game celebrating her 80th birthday.
Some 15 minutes earlier, Macke’s grandma and everyone else in attendance probably had little way of knowing he’d be able to provide her — and them — with such a pleasing gift.
Borrowing liberally from the playbook St. John’s used to hand the Mountaineers their only loss last Saturday, Nicholls (5-5) turned the game into a physical affair and scrapped its way to a 43-43 tie four minutes into the second half.
“They probably watched the St. John’s tape and figured if St. John’s could get away with it, they could get away with it,” Huggins noted.
All the added bumping and poking finally riled up power forward Derek Culver, who scored the next four points to kickstart what turned into an 18-5 West Virginia run.
“Derek decided that he was going to play,” Huggins said. “When Derek gets tired of getting fouled, he just separates people. He’s the difference.”
Culver finished with a game-high 16 points and 16 rebounds. Oscar Tshiebwe added 15 points and 11 rebounds, making Saturday the first time both Mountaineers have recorded double-doubles in the same game. It may not be the last, either, though Nicholls did come into the game ranked dead-last nationally in defensive rebounding. Culver and Tshiebwe’s 27 combined boards tied the Colonels’ entire team total.
West Virginia’s offense also received a long-awaited boost from Sherman. The junior college transfer finally found his stroke, going 3-for-4 from the field for eight first-half points that led the Mountaineers to a 39-31 halftime edge. Sherman came into the game shooting just 28.2 percent from the field.
“With all of them, it takes awhile to understand how hard you have to play at this level,” Huggins said. “College basketball, particularly at the level that we play at here, you really have to work. I keeping explaining to our guys that you can’t have a loose end.”
Fellow JUCO transfer Sean McNeil continued his strong play, adding 10 points off the bench. McNeil drained three three-pointers, including one that he fired with one foot on the ground as he was falling out of bounds near the sideline at the elbow.
“We’ll say that was natural touch,” McNeil joked.
The Mountaineers (9-1) have a week off for final exams before hitting the road for a game at Youngstown State (5-5) next Saturday. Culver is a Youngstown, Ohio native, which explains why West Virginia is playing a road game against a small-school opponent.