WVU, now 7-0 and off to its best start in five seasons, proved yet again what the cumulative effect of its relentlessness can do, turning up the defensive effort and intensity in the second half to piece together a pair of runs that turned a single-digit contest into a 30-point blowout with more than seven minutes to play. The No. 21 Mountaineers, ahead 38-29 after a pedestrian opening half, reeled off 13 consecutive points to lead 52-31 with 12 minutes to play after Charleston scored to open the latter period.
Holton, who also tallied 10 rebounds for his second double-double of the season, netted seven straight points during the charge, anchored overall by four lay-ups and exceptional offensive rebounding. The forward’s combination of length and quickness on the interior proved far too much for CofC, whose showed signs of beginning to wilt with more than 10 minutes left. That’s when the heat became even more oppressive, as the Mountaineers, getting multiple steals, chased just the second Cougar basket of the half with another burst, using quickness and obstructed passing lanes to score eight points in just 31 seconds. That pushed the advantage to a then-game-high 27 points at 60-33 with 10 minutes left, and Charleston never threatened again.
“I think he can be even better than what he was,” WVU head coach Bob Huggins said. “He moved his feet better tonight. That’s where we’d like to get him (to where he can defend all five positions). That’s what made us so tough (during the Final Four season).”
At one point, the Cougars (2-4) struggled to even inbound the ball, frantically running the baseline before desperation passes or being smothered during the on-spot throw-ins by Holton and Elijah Macon. Holton also amassed four assists, a block and three steals. West Virginia, the nation’s steals leader with 85, forced 12, a part of 18 total turnovers which led to 24 points.
“They want me to be the defensive stopper,” Holton said of the Mountaineer coaching staff. “Gotta stay low, gotta stop reaching. I’m 6-7, long arms, I can move around and I can scratch you. I feel like I can guard, if you’re 6-5 or higher, I can guard you. I can make you uncomfortable.”
As can Devin Williams, he of six points and nine rebounds, who also then got into the act, stealing an inbounds and feeding Jaysean Paige down low for a three-point play and a 69-38 lead with 7:32 remaining. It was Paige – 15 points on five-of-eight shooting – who jumpstarted WVU, hitting a pair of threes early as the Mountaineers surged to an initial lead before lackadaisical close-out perimeter defense allowed Charleston to stay close for the half.
“I didn’t think the energy was very good early,” said Huggins, who gained his 80th win in the Coliseum as WVU’s coach. “But in fairness we were trying some different things. We just had to go back to what we were doing and forcing everybody to get involved. Miraculously, we come out in the second half and the energy level is much better.”
West Virginia led by as many as 13 with seven minutes left in the first half, but saw that whittled to just 30-23 by the under-4:00 timeout after consecutive Charleston three-pointers. The primary culprit, besides lack of perimeter defense and an inability to close quickly on shooters, was a field goal drought from the 8:10 mark until 1:42, a span of six-plus minutes. Eight free throws kept Charleston mostly at bay, however, and the Mountaineers still maintained a 38-29 lead at the break.
“Better execution and we upped the intensity level,” said Staten, who scored 10 points and didn’t handle nearly as much as he had in past games. “I’m going to play the way I play regardless. We’re 7-0. We’re 7-0 and it’s a team thing. The more you win, the more everybody gets taken care of.”
Charleston shot a sizzling 52 percent from the floor over the initial 20 minutes, including four of nine from three in the opening half. That number dropped to just 43.5 percent in the second half. Evan Bailey and Donovan Gilmore each scored 13 points to lead the Cougars (2-4), which lost for the fourth time in their most recent five games under first-year head coach Earl Grant, who took over the once-storied program ran by the likes of John Kresse and Bobby Cremmins. Charleston, however, has not reached the NCAA Tournament in 15 years and has just a single NIT appearance in the last decade.
WVU, which also leads the NCAA in offensive rebounds per game at with more than 20, reached that mark again, registering 20 along with 23 second-chance points. WVU’s depth showcased itself again, the Mountaineers outscoring CofC’s reserves 25-18 in remaining one of just 45 Division I undefeateds entering Saturday.
The game marked the fourth time this season that West Virginia topped 80 points. WVU is 29th nationally in scoring per game at 82 points. The Mountaineers had just seven turnovers, marking the 25th time in the last 40 games in which WVU finished with fewer than 10.