The Mountaineers, whose shiny No. 16 ranking was dulled by a last-second loss against LSU on Thursday, took a full half to effectively rebound in this game – literally and figuratively. West Virginia routinely settled for jump shots and three-pointers in the opening period, refusing to challenge a smaller NKU line-up which had packed the paint and was beating WVU on the boards until midway through the period. That changed in the second half, when increased full court pressure led to easier baskets in transition and, eventually, the significant margin of victory.
West Virginia (8-1) led just 20-17 at the break after icy shooting by both sides, but scored the first nine points of the second half for a double-digit edge that was never surrendered. All four field goals came from point blank range, with a tip-in, two lay-ups and a dunk. It was a far more successful approach than the distance shooting upon which the Mountaineers attempted to rely despite playing a team with no starter taller than 6-6. NKU, which slowly faded under West Virginia’s full court press and superior depth and skill, scored just two points in the first 7:31 of the second half, and was behind 33-19 by then in getting outscored 47-25 over the final 20 minutes.
“Pressure,” WVU head coach Bob Huggins said on the MSN by IMG postgame radio show when asked the difference. “We got our hands on some balls and got some easy baskets. Minor tweaks. We quit trapping all the time on the first pass, we took a guy off the ball and kept a safety so they couldn’t throw it deep. We tried to match up five and five (early) and we wanted to make it four on five (in the second half.)”
West Virginia, the national leader in overall steals and steals per game, tied for its fewest of the season with just 10. Staten missed nine of his 12 shots, and was the coldest of WVU shooters in a game in which the Mountaineers hit 39 percent from the floor and a season-low 19 percent from three-point range. Williams had just two field goals, scoring eight of his points from the line to go with six rebounds. Jonathan Holton added 10 points and five boards and provided a spark for West Virginia in the second half, when the lead eventually ballooned to as many as 26 at 63-38 with just minutes to play.
“We were, I don’t know what we were,” Huggins said. “Couldn’t make a shot, got outrebounded. The ball didn’t go in and it got ugly. But you have to respect everybody. This was their Super Bowl. I thought Jon Holton gave us a huge lift in the second half, tipping in balls. Our All-American is three for 12. He gets 12 points and you think we’d struggle and we did. He didn’t shoot it well, but I’m not sure who did.”
Nobody, really, on either side. Northern Kentucky (3-5) missed a whopping 18 of their 20 three-pointers, and finished the game at 26.5 percent from the floor, and the 10 percent from three. The Norse actually had more turnovers (20) than field goals (13) in losing for a third time in as many games this season to a major conference foe. Guards Chad Jackson and Jordan Jackson combined for 22 points and nine of the teams made shots. The rest of the team missed 30 of 34 attempts.
The first half was about as lethargic as possible. West Virginia led 20-17 in a game in which the two teams missed 26 of their first 31 shots and combined for 11 turnovers in the first 11-plus minutes of the game. NBA legend Oscar Robertson, sitting courtside, looked as though he would rather by anywhere else by the midway point, when the teams were tied at a rather pitiful 6-6 with less than nine minutes to play. And this wasn’t a case of excellent defense as much as mediocre effort combined with offensive ineptitude.
The Mountaineers weren’t challenging the rim, instead settling for three-pointers and jump shots, few of which were finding the mark. Northern Kentucky’s issue was much the same, but that was to be expected with the height and interior talent differential. Still, the Norse stayed in the game, West Virginia failing to score for the first 3:15, and managing just one field goal over the first five minutes to trail 4-2 with 14:19 to play. The teams actually combined to go sans a field goal from the 13:53 mark until 8:30 – more than five minutes of play – with just three combined free throws for each team.
The shooting percentages increased slightly from there, WVU ending the opening period at 30.4 percent to Northern Kentucky’s 24 percent. Both teams shot 20 percent from three-point range while also managing to miss more free throws than they made. It was, by all accounts, as miserable a first half for both performance and entertainment as either team has had this season – and that includes a poor initial 20 minutes of the season for the Mountaineers in their opener versus Monmouth. Perhaps the best example was that both teams combined for more turnovers than field goals; WVU made seven shots from the floor and committed nine turnovers. NKU hit six field goals and nearly doubled that up with 11 turnovers. The Norse also held their season-long pattern of wining each contest when ahead at half and losing when behind.
Note: Staten’s four assists moved him past Dale Blaney (331) for 16th place on West Virginia's career list.