Derek Culver contributed 25 points to lead the West Virginia men’s basketball team over a pesky Rhode Island team on Sunday at the WVU Coliseum, 86-81.
Culver also had 11 rebounds as he came off the bench for the second time this season.
West Virginia (7-0) looked like they were going to take control of the game early, going up 38-24 with just under four minutes left in the first half. The Mountaineers took a 44-33 lead into the locker room backed by Emmitt Matthews’ tip in basket to give him 14 first half points. He did not score in the second half.
Rhode Island (5-3) came out hot in the second half. After WVU scored a point from the free throw line to take a 45-33 lead, the Rams went on an 8-0 to cut the lead to four, most of which came from junior point guard Fatts Russell, who ended the game with 32 points.
Russell gave the Mountaineers fits the entire game and WVU head coach Bob Huggins gave three different Mountaineers the assignment of guarding him: sophomore Jordan McCabe started the game, then was replaced by freshman Miles “Deuce” McBride and finally senior Jermaine Haley got the task late.
“You think you got him in a spot, but he’s just one step and he’s right by you,” McBride said of Russell. “The bigs made really good plays in coming to help us, but he was just really fast.”
Russell also finished with five assists and five steals in 38 minutes of action.
WVU led 56-47 with about 13 minutes left in the game before Rhode Island made a push, tying the game at 60 on a 13-4 run.
Looking for an answer, the Mountaineers decided to go to freshman Oscar Tshiebwe, who scored five quick points to push the lead to five at 65-60.
Rhode Island, again, refused to fold and scored the next four. The West Virginia lead stayed within six for the rest of the game.
Leading 82-81 with about 30 seconds remaining, the Mountaineers went to Haley for a tough layup with 12 seconds remaining to extend the lead to three.
With one last chance to tie the game, the Rams went to Russell, but some tight Mountaineer defense forced a big turnover with four seconds left to seal the victory.
“Yesterday, we just didn’t have any pop,” Huggins said after the game. “Today’s shootaround we were (the) same way. We got a bunch of young guys who’ve never been through the travel part of it. The travel part is hard. It takes a lot out of you.”
WVU had a big advantage at the free throw line, hitting 24-of-31 for 77%, compared to just 10-of-15 for Rhode Island.
However, the Rams had the advantage from the perimeter, shooting 7-of-10 from three compared to just 4-of-13 for the Mountaineers.
The Rams also held a 38 to 34 advantage in points in the paint.
The Mountaineers are undefeated through seven games for the first time since the 2015-16 season, who also started 7-0 before losing to Virginia at Madison Square Garden, coincidentally where WVU will play next.
West Virginia will take on St. John’s at noon on Saturday in a Big East/Big 12 clash. The game will be televised on Fox Sports 1.