West Virginia men’s basketball took advantage of some much-needed reinforcements as it defeated No. 15 UConn 56-53 in Morgantown on Tuesday in the Big East/Big 12 Battle.
Sean McNeil returned to the Mountaineer lineup and contributed his seventh double-digit scoring night of the season. The story of the game, however, was WVU’s stronger ability to capitalize on opportunities, especially in the second half, when UConn gave up 10 of its 16 turnovers due to West Virginia’s tough play.
The returning guard did get the game going, though, as he made WVU’s first two shots on his first two attempts. That started a trend for WVU, as he and Taz Sherman were the only Mountaineers to finish the half with multiple buckets.
UConn, on the other hand, was able to spread its offense out early, led by Andre Jackson and Isaiah Whaley’s 17 combined first half points, but the Huskies struggled to put the ball in the hoop, making 44 percent of their shots.
WVU ended up taking a one-point lead into the locker room at halftime.
RJ Cole gave UConn a boost out of the break when he scored the Huskies’ first 10 points for the visitors’ first lead in eight minutes of game time. It wasn’t enough to boost his team, though, as neither squad led by over two possessions as they traded the advantage.
The game came down to the final seconds of play, and especially WVU’s foul shooting, which, to that point had been dysmal — WVU made just 12 of its 27 free throws at the final whistle. Sherman had the opportunity to put the game away with 21 seconds left, but missed the back end of a 1-and-1. Gabe Osabuohien saved the day, though, grabbing the offensive rebound and allowing McNeil to put the game away from the line again.
“It was huge. Gabe made a lot of plays,” said WVU coach Bob Huggins. “Taz made a lot of plays, and a lot of those guys made a lot of plays. I think it shocked everybody that we kept going up there and missing.”
West Virginia’s physical defense was a major key to the victory, as Osabuohien stayed tough throughout the contest. Huggins also made a switch in the closing minutes to a 1-3-1 zone, which visibly bothered the Husky offense.
“That’s a tough thing to deal with. I’ve probably watched five games and haven’t seen them play 1-3-1,” said UConn coach Dan Hurley. “They haven’t shown that, but I thought our first possession against it was a mess.”
The physicality of the game could be perceived to some as a trademark of the league in which UConn and West Virginia used to compete nearly a decade ago. Huggins says it’s not much different than what he sees in the Big 12 now — and that physical play is a normality for his teams.
“When you have 10 athletes like that running around out there, you’re going to have contact,” Huggins said. “There’s nothing you can do about that, you’re going to have contact.”
Sherman led the game with 23 points to go along with six rebounds and three assists. McNeil added 16 points to the effort, while Osabuohien led the team with seven rebounds.
Isaiah Whaley paced the Huskies with 15 points, while Cole chipped in 14, six rebounds and three assists.
The Mountaineers improve to 8-1 on the season as they pick up their first victory over a ranked opponent. UConn falls to 8-2 on the year.
West Virginia next hits the court Sunday when it hosts Kent State. Tip-off is set for 4 p.m. ET on ESPN2.