On a night when West Virginia’s Miles “Deuce” McBride scored a game-high 30 points to help give coach Bob Huggins his 900th career win, it was the sophomore guard’s defensive play which most pleased Huggins during the Mountaineers’ 84-67 victory over Morehead State in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.
“Deuce played great. He was good defensively. He kicked a couple balls loose that got runouts for us and we haven’t gotten a lot of those,” Huggins said. “We haven’t pressured people to the point that we scored off our defense and Deuce was a big key to that.”
Third-seeded West Virginia (19-9) didn’t start to pull away from the No. 14 seed Eagles (23-8) at Lucas Oil Stadium until nearly seven minutes had passed in the second half.
To no surprise, it began with a McBride steal that the Mountaineers’ leading scorer turned into a driving layup with 13:04 to play. McBride was fouled on the play, which the officials reviewed and deemed was a flagrant on the Eagles’ DeVon Cooper. McBride made the two free throws from the flagrant, and then inbounded the ball to himself off a Morehead player’s back to work his way back to the foul line, where he converted another pair.
In all, McBride scored six points in two seconds, taking a 49-45 lead and upping it to 10 points.
“I don’t think I’ve ever done anything like that, but I was in the moment playing the game and trying to stay one step ahead of the other team,” McBride said.
The Eagles got no closer than eight the rest of the way.
West Virginia center Derek Culver came alive late and scored 8 of his 12 points over the final 10:45.
“It obviously helps a ton when you have a guy like Derek that’s able to create his own shot and go rebound a missed shot,” McBride said. “Give a lot of credit to Derek. He had a rough first half, but we’re going to keep staying positive and he’s going to keep at it.”
Culver and McBride combined for 16 straight Mountaineer points in the second half, with McBride draining consecutive three-pointers to stretch the WVU lead to 65-53. Jalen Bridges threw down a dunk and made a triple moments later, pushing the lead out to 15 and allowing the Mountaineers to win comfortably.
The victory sends West Virginia into Sunday’s second-round matchup with No. 11 seed Syracuse (17-9). Tip time at Bankers Life Fieldhouse is 5:15 p.m.
The Mountaineers used an early 11-0 run to build a 17-6 lead, only for the Eagles to answer with their own 11-0 spurt to pull even.
Morehead State held a 23-22 lead after Cooper’s triple, but the Mountaineers used a 7-0 run to to lead by six 4:27 before halftime.
West Virginia settled for a 38-31 halftime lead, with McBride’s 12 points leading the way, although Culver was held without a field goal and to two points.
“It really was a matter of mechanics and he was going too fast,” Huggins said. “He was excited to play in the NCAA Tournament. All those guys were. It got taken away from them a year ago and they all look forward to it so much. He got going way faster than he was capable of handling and once he got slowed down, he scored the ball pretty well for us in there.”
Cooper’s three-pointer 36 seconds into the second half sparked the Eagles and when KJ Hunt added his own triple and followed with a driving layup, WVU’s lead was 42-41.
The Mountaineers still led by one after both teams scored four straight points, but Bridges’ three with 13:33 to play started the decisive 11-0 run that put West Virginia up 57-45.
“Jalen’s been big for us since we made the switch and started playing four perimeter guys,” Huggins said. “He’s shot it well. He stretches the defense and when he’s active he rebounds it really well.“
McBride made 11-of-17 shots and added six rebounds, six assists and three steals without a turnover.
Bridges scored 15 points on 6-of-8 shooting and had five boards. Sean McNeil added 13 points, while Culver finished with 12 points, seven boards and three blocks.
West Virginia shot nearly 51 percent (32-of-63) and made 9-of-18 from deep. The Mountaineers also had only six turnovers and forced 18.
Cooper’s 21 points led the Eagles, who shot 52 percent in the loss. Skyelar Potter scored 18, while Johni Broome added 10, though he was 1-for-8 with 2 points after halftime.
Huggins improved to 34-24 in the NCAA Tournament, including 14-9 at West Virginia. In the moments following Huggins’ 900th win, West Virginia’s players and coaches celebrated with the veteran coach on the floor. He is the sixth coach to reach 900 victories at the Division I level.
“I love those guys and it’s gratifying that they can be a part of it,” Huggins said. “They enjoy it a lot more than I do, but that’s pretty neat. When they have something to look back on and share with whomever, hopefully it’s one of the positive things that happened in their athletic career.”