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West Virginia looks to handle Auburn’s athleticism, end SEC/Big 12 Challenge on high note

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — West Virginia’s only remaining break from Big 12 play comes Saturday when the Mountaineers welcome No. 15 Auburn as part of the final installment and 10th year of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge.

The noon contest at the WVU Coliseum can be seen on ESPN.

Fresh off their first conference road win in 23 months, the Mountaineers (12-8, 2-6 Big 12) seek to gain more confidence and momentum in addition to a fifth Quad 1 win in what marks the team’s 13th opportunity at one.

“You can’t sleep on them obviously,” said WVU sophomore guard Seth Wilson, fresh off a career-high 15 points in Wednesday’s victory at Texas Tech. “They’re a great team. We’re taking it with the same approach like they’re in conference. It’s another game we can’t take lightly.”

Since suffering through a five-game losing streak to start Big 12 play, West Virginia has won two of three. Now the Mountaineers step out of conference play for the first time since December 22 against Stony Brook, which is the last time they won consecutive contests.

West Virginia is 2-7 all-time in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge, with its only victories coming at home coming against Texas A&M in 2017 and Missouri in 2020.

“We’ve had success with them, and there have been ones we’ve struggled with,” WVU head coach Bob Huggins said. “It’s kind of a refresher a little bit for our guys instead of constantly playing in league play. This is good, particularly when you get to play at home.”

Above all else, Huggins indicated the Mountaineers must find a way to handle Auburn’s athleticism.

In nine seasons guided by head coach Bruce Pearl, the Tigers have largely played at a frenetic pace and like to use that athleticism to ramp up defensive pressure and create opportunities in transition.

While forcing just shy of 14 turnovers per game, Auburn (16-4, 6-2 SEC) is turning those into an average of 15 points. The Tigers, much like West Virginia, have consistently gotten to the free-throw line. While WVU is shooting 24.2 free throws on average to rank No. 11 nationally, Auburn isn’t far behind with 21.4 attempts on average to rank No. 37.

“Since Bruce has been there, they’ve been very athletic,” Huggins said.

Wendell Green Jr., a 5-foot-11 guard, leads Auburn with an average of 13.9 points. He’s followed by a pair of front court players in 6-10 Johni Broome and 6-8 Jaylin Williams, who average 13.3 and 10.7, respectively. Broome, a Morehead State transfer who matched up with West Virginia in the 2021 NCAA Tournament, also leads the team with 8.5 rebounds and 51 blocks.

Auburn Tigers forward Johni Broome (4) blocks Texas A&M Aggies forward Julius Marble (34) as Auburn Tigers take on Texas A&M Aggies at Neville Arena in Auburn, Ala., on Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2023. Texas A&M Aggies defeated Auburn Tigers 79-63.

He’s provided a big boost to Auburn in in the paint after the Tigers lost two NBA first-round draft picks from last season’s team in 6-11 Jabari Smith and 7-footer Walker Kessler.

“He gave us fits when he was a freshman,” said Huggins, before adding that Auburn “probably got the best big out of the portal.”

The Tigers had a five-game win streak snapped Wednesday with a home loss to Texas A&M. They’ve have made 52 percent of two-point field-goal attempts, but less than 30 percent of their 3-pointers.

“I’m seeing a lot of guys that play hard and give a lot of effort,” Wilson said. “They’re very skilled. We have to take them as if they’re a Big 12 team, because they have the talent of a Big 12 team.”

Wilson was one of several reserves to play a pivotal role in West Virginia’s 76-61 victory against the Red Raiders. Point guard Joe Toussaint scored a team-high 22 points and James Okonkwo, a 6-11 sophomore, had the most productive game of his college career with five points, 10 rebounds and two blocks, one of which was a two-handed snatch of a Daniel Batcho block attempt that would undoubtedly be on a short list of the team’s top defensive plays this season.

“I was worried that I didn’t have any help side and I knew I was going to get taken out of the game if he scored it,” Okonkwo said. “I Just tried to get to the ball really.”

Over WVU’s last two games, Okonkwo has 11 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks, while making 4-of-5 field goals and 3-of-4 free throws. A player who did not see action in two of the team’s first five league games appears to be finding his niche.

“Coach trusts me more and knows what he puts me in to do,” Okonkwo said. “Get rebounds, be an athlete on the floor, defend the rim.”

Huggins is hopeful the recent stretch is the start of more consistency from Okonkwo.

“I’ve been trying to get James to step up a little bit more,” he said. “James is such a good guy and kind of steps back and lets other people take some minutes that he probably deserves. He’s our most athletic big. He’s probably our most talented one when it comes to overall athletic talent. He can run, jump and move his feet. He’s a quick jumper. He just needs to do it on a consistent basis and he’s going to be in the lineup.”

Off guard Erik Stevenson regained the title of West Virginia’s leading scorer in Lubbock, where he finished with 16 points and a career-high 10 rebounds to help the Mountaineers dominate the battle of the boards. Stevenson is averaging 13.1 points, slightly ahead of forward Tre Mitchell, whose average dwindled to 12.6 after he was hampered by foul trouble and scored three points against the Red Raiders.

Toussaint and fellow point guard Kedrian Johnson are next at 10.6 and 10.4 points, respectively. Forward Emmitt Matthews Jr. follows at 9.6, though he’s scored only six points over the last two games.

Huggins indicated Johnson and Matthews are both battling ankle injuries. Johnson was out for the final 15 minutes of the most recent outing and Matthews did not practice Thursday.

“I’ll know after practice today,” Huggins said on whether his team will be at full strength.

Huggins’ annual Fish Fry is being held Friday night at Mylan Park to raise money for the Norma Mae Huggins Endowment at the WVU Cancer Institute and the Remember the Miners Flagship Scholars Program.

Huggins estimated between $2-2.5 million will be raised at this year’s event, of which Charles Barkley is the headline guest. 

Barkley, a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, is a former standout at Auburn who went on to be an 11-time NBA All-Star. He was named to the The NBA 75th Anniversary Team.

When Huggins was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame last year, he reached out to Barkley about the fish fry.

“I was walking down the stairs and he was walking up the stairs,” Huggins said. “I said, ‘I need you to come to the fish fry for me.’ I told him what it was for. He said, ‘yeah call me and let me know.’ I called, and he said, ‘yeah, sure.”

Huggins also confirmed Barkley will attend Saturdays’ matchup.

“He’s a great guy. He really is. I got to spend a lot of time with him.” Huggins said. “Nike used to take everybody on vacation basically. I played golf with Charles and we all hung around together. 

“I was there when he threw his clubs into the pond right off of 18.” 

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