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West Virginia tops Mount St. Mary’s in season opener, 76-58

(Game highlights)

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — West Virginia produced the desired result, but found much to clean up Monday in a 76-58 season-opening victory over Mount St. Mary’s at The Coliseum.

Save for a 15-0 spurt that covered 5-plus minutes of the first half, there was little separation between WVU and its opponent, which was picked in the preseason to finish 10th among 11 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference teams.

“I didn’t think we played very well,” said WVU head coach Bob Huggins after picking up career win No. 917 and his first since being enshrined into the Basketball Hall Of Fame. “No disrespect to them. They played really hard and made some hard shots and so forth. We don’t make rotations. We don’t guard the ball as well as we need to guard the ball. We didn’t rebound it the way we’re capable of rebounding it and we turn it over 18 times again, which has to stop.”

In addition to a balanced scoring effort that featured three players in double figures and seven with at least seven points, West Virginia limited Mount St. Mary’s to 8-of-34 shooting on two-point field-goal attempts.

The Mountaineers may not have rebounded up to Huggins’ standard, but they did dominate the glass to the tune of a 45-28 advantage despite allowing 13 offensive boards.

“We’re athletic, but we’re not skilled,” Huggins said.   

MSM did have the hot hand from the perimeter and made 10 of 21 from 3-point range, but found next to no success inside the arc and made only 2-of-16 two-point attempts in the opening half.

Yet with 11 first-half turnovers, including seven over the first 10:19 of play, WVU was rarely in rhythm offensively. That prevented the home team from starting to create separation until 13 minutes in when a Seth Wilson jumper marked the beginning of a 15-0 spurt.

After starting the surge with a basket to give his team a 15-12 lead, Wilson scored five consecutive points during the run, including a 3-pointer that benefited from a friendly bounce off the back of the rim and made it 24-12.

Second-chance layups from Emmitt Matthews Jr. and Mohamed Wague gave WVU its biggest lead of the half at 28-12, before MSM drew closer on triples from Jalen Benjamin and Deandre Thomas, allowing the visitors to trail 30-18 at halftime.

“The message was year-to-year [WVU] won’t always necessarily be the most skilled, but they’re going to play harder than anyone in the country,” Mount St. Mary’s head coach Dan Englestad said. “That’s why coach Huggins is a Hall of Famer. We matched their intensity and physicality for the most part, but we had some lapses.“

West Virginia’s lead was double digits for the entirety of the second half, but MSM was within striking distance for much of it, including at the 13:07 mark after a Deandre Thomas triple made it 40-29.

Matthews countered with consecutive dunks to stretch the lead back to 15, though it was cut to 45-34 moments later after Frantisek Barton made 1-of-2 free throws with 10:10 to play.

(Bob Huggins postgame press conference) 

From that point forward, WVU faithful got a look at what Texas transfer Tre Mitchell is capable of. Despite completing only one preseason practice due to a foot injury that sidelined him, Mitchell finished with 13 points, including nine over the final 9:42.

“Game shape can really only be done in a game,” Mitchell said. “Any hooper will tell you the same regardless of what you do off the court. It’s different paces and sprints. I’m not far from it though.”

His second-chance dunk made it 47-34, and Mitchell added two free throws soon after that gave WVU a 16-point lead.

Mitchell scored inside to make it 55-39 with 6:43 left, and his final points came on his second 3 of the night, leaving West Virginia with a 61-45 lead with 4:42 to play.

“We talked to the medical staff and they said play him as long as you want to play him,” Huggins said. “I didn’t particularly want to play him a lot at once. That’s why I took him out and put him back in. But he needs to get in shape and needs to get back in the flow of things. He’s a talented guy.”

West Virginia shot 49 percent and made 22-of-37 two-point field goals while improving to 152-38 in non-conference games under Huggins.

Matthews had a team-high 15 points and five assists to go with seven rebounds. Mitchell added 13 points in just over 14 minutes of action. 

“He adds a lot of dimensions,” Matthews said of Mitchell. “Keeping him in the loop and in game shape is going to be the start. We looked good today, but I know there’s a lot more in the tank.”

Erik Stevenson scored 10 and Wague contributed nine points and a game-high nine rebounds in his West Virginia debut. Guard Joe Toussaint scored eight, while Wilson and Kedrian Johnson added seven apiece.

The turnovers were the biggest negative offensively.

“Bad passing. We just do dumb things,” Huggins said. “Emmitt has a terrible habit of putting it over his head and passing it, which he’s gotten away with because of his size. It seems that every time he puts it over his head to pass it in scrimmages, someone deflects it. He has to stop doing that. That was one of many, many turnovers. You can’t throw it to people’s feet. We tried to force it inside too many times.”

James Okonkwo was also a bright spot in the victory. He made his only field-goal attempt and contributed five rebounds and a pair of blocks.

“He was an animal,” Matthews said. “I’m super proud of what he did today. I get on him every day because I know how good he can be.”

Benjamin led all players with 18 points and Dakota Leffew added 12 in defeat.

West Virginia returns to action Friday at Pitt. Tip-off at the Petersen Events Center is 7 p.m. The Panthers defeated Tennessee-Martin 80-58 on Monday.

“We’re just going to go play,” Huggins said. “Those people in the stands can’t block a shot, make a steal or score a goal. They make some noise — big deal. Let’s worry about the task at hand, which is beating the people on the floor.”

(Tre Mitchell & Emmitt Matthews Jr. postgame press conference) 

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