MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — In West Virginia’s 3-5 start to the season, sluggish second halves have proven to be the Mountaineers’ undoing in many of their losses. On Saturday against Drexel, WVU found the necessary baskets and defensive stops late to hold off the Dragons, 66-60.
The game was a homecoming for Morgantown High School graduate and former WVU assistant coach Zach Spiker, who is in his eighth season leading Drexel.
“Credit to Coach Spiker for coming in here and having a great game plan and taking us to the wire. It was a battle and he is a great coach,” said WVU head coach Josh Eilert.
“I took a minute to walk around the Coliseum when I got in just to appreciate that moment,” Spiker said.
The Dragons (5-5) quickly jumped out to a 15-6 lead just six minutes into the contest. The Mountaineers pulled even with 7:08 to go in the opening half on a 3-pointer from Quinn Slazinski. The Dragons retook the lead minutes later and took a 33-31 advantage into the locker room.
“I thought we had a really good stretch in the first half and I thought we should have had a bigger cushion going into halftime,” Spiker said.
“We expect to win these games. I thought our mindset and our approach all day yesterday was very business-like. It is disappointing, frankly. If you play your absolute best and the ball doesn’t roll on the rim, rolls off or something happens, that’s understandable. I don’t know that we played our absolute best.”
Despite trailing at halftime, the Mountaineers received a solid shooting performance from Seth Wilson in the opening frame. Wilson scored 9 of his 11 points before halftime and he connected on 3-of-5 shots from beyond the arc.
“Seeing Seth get that early one, you could just tell there was a flip of the switch,” Eilert said.
“These guys have been stressing that we are confident in you. Tonight, for this to be one of those nights where I could actually hit and make the game easier for them, it meant a lot to me,” Wilson said.
In the second half, the Mountaineers were given a much-needed lift from fifth year forward Akok Akok. After playing eight minutes Wednesday against Pittsburgh, Akok played 12 minutes against the Dragons. He scored five points, dished out two assists and was a plus-15 in his time on the floor.
“You have another great player on the court. Even if it starts with ten minutes, it is going to help the team as a whole if we have him out there,” Eilert said.
“Big three, but more than anything he just gives everyone a lift on the defensive end. With his size and length, he can sit down and guard a point guard if he has to. He can switch on to anyone on the floor and he can guard a big. From a coaching standpoint, it just gives you so much more leverage defensively. He was a huge lift.”
“We came out with great energy in the second half,” said WVU fifth year center Jesse Edwards. “Akok made some electric plays. The team just had a lot better roll to them and played a lot looser, played a lot faster. We just played good basketball.”
With the game tied at 48, Wilson scored his final basket of the game with 9:20 to play. Drexel chipped away at the deficit several times but the Mountaineers (4-5) never relinquished the lead, en route to their fourth victory of the season.
Edwards led the Mountaineers with 16 points. Slazinski added 14 points, with 11 of those coming in the first half. Kobe Johnson scored 8 points and dished out a game-high 6 assists.
This is the final game the Mountaineers will play before point guard Kerr Kriisa returns to the lineup. His 9-game suspension by the NCAA for receiving impermissible benefits will end next Saturday.
“Besides the obvious thing of saving legs, I know you guys have heard before that he is a magician,” Wilson said of Kriisa. “Having that presence back of a guy that can get guys shots and make shots, his presence on the floor is going to be huge for us.”
West Virginia’s four-game homestand has ended. The Mountaineers will face UMass next Saturday at the Basketball Hall of Fame Classic. Under the direction of Frank Martin, the Minutemen are off to a 5-2 start.
“It will be special to go out there against Frank,” Eilert said. “I worked with Frank in the past back to the K-State days. It will be a fun matchup in Springfield.”