The team that squared off toe-to-toe with the defending national champions and led the game from start to finish was not playing with the same energy. And the results were showing it.
With the exception of the time it blew a double-digit lead to LSU for its only loss of the season, West Virginia was still winning games. The No. 22 Mountaineers just weren’t doing it with the same energy and tenacity that it had in those handful of games at the start of the season when they were unranked and trying to prove that they had what it takes to be a good team.
“We were playing angry (at the beginning of the season),” said junior guard Jaysean Paige. “I wouldn’t say we lost it, but we just got comfortable. We weren’t playing with that same edge we were playing with before. We just weren’t playing how we should be playing.”
That edge appeared to be back Saturday against North Carolina State. The Mountaineers were hungry, they used their toughness and relentless defensive pressure to make sure they stayed in the lead when the game got tight – and showed impressive resiliency when it looked at times like the Wolfpack might be able to do exactly what LSU had done to them a little more than two weeks earlier.
“I don’t think we had played with that much passion and intensity since Puerto Rico,” said senior point guard Juwan Staten, who led the Mountaineers with 24 points and six assists against NC State and won the game’s Most Outstanding Player honors.
“We came in and we were wanting to get ranked and prove to the world how good we were, and once we did that I think we relaxed. We’re back now.”
And that same edge will have to be there tonight at the Coliseum when West Virginia returns to the court to take on Wofford. The Terriers are one of WVU’s final non-conference opponents – another opportunity to have a good showing and keep some confidence up before heading into taking on the daunting task of the Big 12 Conference season.
Wofford is 9-2 on the season, with its losses coming against Stanford and William & Mary, and the Terriers have won a couple of good games early in the year – including a one-point victory against North Carolina State in Raleigh.
It’s a team that can be pretty dangerous and, although it’s not a big-name team like WVU will be facing in the next few weeks in league play, the Mountaineers will have to bring that same energy in order to put together another impressive performance.
“Wofford’s good – I mean, really good,” said West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins. “NC State had them down eight with (three) minutes to go, but they kept their poise, kept playing and ended up winning the game.”
Against the Wolfpack, Huggins became the 14th coach in Division I college basketball history to win 750 career games. There isn’t much doubt that, even with the quick turnaround, he’ll be able to get the message across to his team how important it is to come out ready to play against a quality opponent like the Terriers.
But at the end of the day, West Virginia will have to come out and play with that same energy and the same chip on its shoulder that it appeared to have against North Carolina State Saturday night at The Garden.
“We still feel like underdogs,” said junior forward Jonathan Holton. “Especially after we’ve kind of like struggled here in the last couple games.
“We don’t feel like we have the respect we deserve yet, so we have to go and get it.”