MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — West Virginia’s 76-71 win over No. 11 Iowa State on Wednesday night strengthened the Mountaineers’ postseason resume and marked the team’s third victory over a Top 15-ranked team in a span of three weeks.
Moving forward, West Virginia hopes it was also the start of a turnaround in the play of Emmitt Matthews’ Jr., whose 20-point performance matched his offensive output from the previous four games combined.
Matthews made 7-of-10 shots and one three-pointer, which combined with five points on free throws in six attempts, enabled the fifth-year forward to produce a season-high point total.
“I scored within the flow of the offense, tried not to force stuff and just played basketball,” said Matthews, who credited his teammates’ perimeter proficiency for helping to limit the attention he receives from opposing defenses.
While Wednesday marked a breakout performance for a player who spent his first three seasons at West Virginia and last season at Washington, Matthews had been a key factor offensively until the recent five-game stretch that preceded the win over the Cyclones in which he scored 24 points on 9-for-31 shooting. That caused his scoring average to dip from 10.4, which was third on the team at the time, to 9.1, putting Matthews behind four teammates.
Matthews remains the team’s fifth-leading scorer at 9.6 points following his best outing in 11 Big 12 games.
“We won. I came back here to win games,” Matthews said. “I didn’t come back here to average 20 points or score a bunch of buckets. I came back here to try and do something special with this team. We got off to a slow start in the Big 12 and right now, we’re trying to correct it all.
“My main assignment usually is either me or [point guard Kedrian Johnson] to guard the best player. If he’s a point guard, Keedy is going to guard him. If he’s a two through four, I’m usually going to guard him. I knew that was my role coming here and the first time I was here. Just sticking with that and letting the game come to me. I was really efficient. There have been games I’ve shot eight or nine shots and only made two or zero. Shots fell tonight and we just played ball.”
While Matthews can affect the game in a number of ways — defensively, rebounding, screening, passing and with a veteran presence — outside of scoring, his strong offensive showing was a welcomed sight for a Mountaineer team that needed it.
On a night when the team’s top two scorers both struggled and combined for 17 points and 4-for-16 shooting, Matthews delivered in a big way. He and Johnson combined for 28 of the team’s 40 second-half points and were the only two Mountaineers to make a field goal over that time. Matthews, who went to halftime with seven points, made 4-of-6 shots, which included banking in a triple, and 4-of-5 free throws over the final 20 minutes.
“He gives us great length to defend. That’s one of the really big advantages that he gives us,” WVU head coach Bob Huggins said. “But he’s a good rebounder, he can shoot it as you saw [Wednesday] and he makes free throws. He does a lot of things for us.”
Matthews is shooting 45.4 percent overall in his final season of college basketball, including 34.4 percent from long range and a team-best 84 percent on free throws, having made 42 of 50.
West Virginia has shown recently it can win with Matthews not being at his best, but the Mountaineers would undoubtedly like to see him come close to duplicating Wednesday’s effort down the line.
Matthews is assured of at least eight more college basketball games, with seven remaining in the regular season as well as at least one in the Big 12 Tournament.
West Virginia is considered somewhat safely in the NCAA Tournament field at present, but with road games at Texas and Baylor over the next five days, as well as contests at Kansas and Iowa State later this month, stacking wins will be anything but easy.
Considering the Mountaineers likely need a minimum of 18 wins to feel good about their chances of qualifying for the NCAA Tournament, plenty of work remains.
“We’re going to try our best to win all our games remaining in the regular season,” Matthews said. “Kansas City, we know what that atmosphere is like and obviously we’d love to do something special there. That first weekend in April is what everybody wants to play for. We’re going to take this one game at a time and not look past any opponents. We have a road trip coming up with two tough opponents. We’re going to try to go handle business and come back home and handle business even more.
“Nothing is ruled out. I’ve watched 12 seeds to get to the Final Four. You see it happen like every other year. I don’t think we’ll be that low of a seed. We’re going to keep the wheels turning and get up to hopefully a five or six seed and play from there, but a national championship is what everybody wants.”