MORGANTOWN, W.Va.– The last few weeks have been difficult for No.14 West Virginia. Since the Jan. 16 loss at Oklahoma, the Mountaineers have gone 6-5 with some disappointing losses.
At times during that stretch, WVU has looked flat on the court and struggled with areas of the game that they excelled much of the year.
But on Monday night’s 97-87 victory over Iowa State, the Mountaineers had one of their best performances in 11 games.
WVU’s bench exploded for 69 points, which was two shy of the school record of 71 set against Wisconsin Superior on Dec. 15, 1981.
Paige’s 34 points were a school record, breaking Chris Leonard’s 32 bench points scored in a game against St. Bonaventure on January 6, 1990.
Paige suffered an ankle injury against Texas on Feb. 16, but the Jamestown, NY native didn’t seem bothered by it on Monday.
Daxter Miles Jr. also returned to the Mountaineers’ lineup against Iowa State after missing two games with a hamstring injury. Miles saw limited action and didn’t start, but it is a step in the right direction.
WVU thrives off having the best 10 or 11 guys, which gives them an advantage over its opponents.
“We’ve got a good strong 10 or 11 guys,” Phillip said. “When we all come ready to play, we’re tough to beat then.”
Having everyone healthy will be crucial as tournament time approaches. The lack of depth has affected the Mountaineers’ pressure defense in many of those last five losses.
Another positive in WVU’s win over the Cyclones was the improvement on the glass.
The Sooners dominated the Mountaineers on the boards on Saturday, which played a role in WVU’s loss.
The Mountaineers aren’t the best shooting team in America. WVU depends on second chance points.
The Mountaineers outrebounded Iowa State 43-29. WVU’s 18 offensive rebounds led to 22 second chance points and helped beat the Cyclones.
WVU also used a couple big runs to its advantage.
“It’s a lot easier to get into pressure after you make shots,” head coach Bob Huggins said. “I thought we moved the ball better, Tarik making shots really helped when we were struggling and Jaysean is back to where he’s got a little bounce where he can finish a little better at the rim.”
The Mountaineers are not a team that excels in 3-point shooting but Phillip was on fire from beyond the arc. He made 6-of-8 from long range.
With less talented shooters than some of the other Big 12 teams, WVU depends on turnovers and steals to score the points.
Against Oklahoma, the Mountaineers only forced nine turnovers, which is half of their season average of 18. But against Iowa State, WVU forced 15 turnovers and had seven steals.
The Mountaineers’ press forced uncharacteristic turnovers from Georges Niang, Abdel Nader and Monte Morris.
The Cyclones’ big men Niang and Nader combined for seven turnovers and guard Morris committed four.
Nathan Adrian says the key for the WVU’s success was to get it out of the ball handlers’ hands.
“Morris and Niang are the two primary ball handlers even though that he (Niang) is a forward,” Adrian said. “So we tried to get it out of their hands as much as possible.”
Huggins feels that keeping the Cyclones in front of them and improving traps were a reason for his team’s success, but their is always room for improvement.
“I thought our traps were better,” Huggins said. “We closed traps better. We are not getting as much from running balls down from behind as what we were. We need to do a better job of that.”
WVU put forth more of an effort than it has at times in recent weeks.
“I thought we had more bounce,” Huggins said. “I told them yesterday that I thought it was the best practice that we had in a long time. We were bouncing around again. And I thought we would come out and our pressure would be better. To a large degree it’s an energy thing.”
The Mountaineers have been plagued by turnovers at times this year, but they committed just 11 against Iowa State.
WVU is alone in second place in the Big 12 standings and are 1.5 games behind Kansas.