West Virginia was hoping a near full week between games would help prevent its lack of depth from surfacing Monday against SMU at the Fort Myers Tip-Off.
For the Mountaineers, that unfortunately did not hold true as an 11-point halftime lead evaporated and the Mustangs dominated the second half to win comfortably, 70-58, Suncoast Credit Union Arena.
With the result, West Virginia (2-2) will face Virginia at 6 p.m. Wednesday in its second and final game of the event. Earlier Monday, the Cavaliers were handled in a 65-41 loss to Wisconsin, which will play later Wednesday against SMU in the event’s championship.
WVU was a dismal 7 for 27 shooting after halftime, and struggled defensively over the game’s final 20 minutes. SMU (4-1) shot 18 for 30 in the second half, including 5 of 11 from three-point range, while turning it over twice.
“We had a pretty good first half, we were really rebounding it well. A lot of those shots they were taking were uncontested so they started falling in the second half for them,” WVU interim head coach Josh Eilert said on postgame radio. “We weren’t good enough there late in the game with a short bench to match their physicality, the way they run out and try to get easy points. I knew that’s what they were going to go to and they wore us down.”
The Mountaineers’ Ofri Naveh split two free throws for the first point of the second half, allowing West Virginia to hold a 37-25 lead. Over the next 5:07, the Mustangs outscored the Mountaineers 17-4, and they’d never look back.
SMU guard Chuck Harris accounted for his team’s first seven points of the second half, and after the Mountaineers’ Quinn Slazinski made a three-pointer for a 41-34 lead, the Mustangs used an 8-0 spurt that featured two Ricardo Wright triples to gain a one-point advantage.
Jesse Edwards’ layup and a Kobe Johnson dunk enabled the Mountaineers to regain a three-point lead, but starting with Harris’ setback jump shot at the 10:54 mark, the Mustangs reeled off 10 unanswered points to gain control of the contest.
The decisive surge was highlighted by field goals from five different players as Zhuric Phelps, Tyreek Smith, Keon Ambrose-Hylton and B.J. Edwards followed Harris’ bucket, with an Edwards layup at the 7:12 mark making it 54-47 Mustangs.
WVU got as close as 56-52 with 5:58 to play on a Seth Wilson triple, but the Mountaineers made one field goal the rest of the way — a Slazinski jumper with 20 seconds left that provided the final margin.
Phelps had a team-high 17 points in the win and led all players with 12 rebounds. Wright, a reserve, scored all 12 of his points in the second half on 4-of-5 shooting from three, while Harris had nine of his 12 points after halftime.
Edwards, who consistently drew multiple defenders after receiving the ball, had a game-high 18 points to go with nine rebounds. Slazinski added 13 points but missed five of his six second-half shots before the late basket.
WVU continues to struggle getting production outside of its top two scorers and Wilson was the third-leading scorer Monday with nine points on 2-for-8 shooting.
The Mountaineers put together perhaps their best extended stretch this season over the final 7 minutes of the first half, during which time they outscored SMU 15-5 to hold a double-digit halftime advantage.
Wilson’s three at the 6:46 mark left WVU with a 24-20 lead, and Edwards followed with back-to-back buckets from close range to leave the Mustangs facing an eight-point deficit.
WVU used a mixture of 2-3 zone and man-to-man defense, with the zone proving far more effective in the first half when SMU made 11-of-30 shots and 3 of 12 from long range.
The Mustangs shot 29 for 60 to WVU’s 20 for 54. The Mountaineers had nine more points on free throws on 15 more attempts, but committed 15 turnovers, including five from Edwards.
SMU had just eight turnovers, allowing it hold a 16-5 edge in points off turnovers. The Mustangs also had a 19-11 edge in bench points.
West Virginia played only seven players among the eight it has available on scholarship. Five Mountaineers played at least 31 minutes and Eilert utilized second-half timeouts for the purpose of providing rest to players.
“That’s where we’re at with timeouts it seems like,” Eilert said. “I can read them and their exhaustion levels.”