The Mountaineers mixed 24 forced turnovers with incredibly balanced scoring in an 89-57 win in the semifinals of the NIT Season Tip-Off Tournament on Thanksgiving. Led by Nate Adrian's 13 points and Jevon Carter's 10, a dozen different players scored in the romp, with a whopping 10 managing at least five points.
It was the definition of smothering defense and superb ball distribution, as WVU used both in an early 18-2 run that turn a two-point deficit into a 25-11 lead just eight minutes in. Carter jumpstarted the push with a three, and Dax Miles came off the bench in his return from illness to hit two more treys during the spurt. It was nearly elementary from there, the Mountaineers swarming Illinois with on-ball pressure, clogged passing lanes and a fluid, unselfish offense that broke down the Illini's man look.
"We talked before, we were flying around for a pretty good stretch of the game," head coach Bob Huggins said on the MSN by IMG postgame radio show. "We are deep enough that we keep bringing them in. Like we talked about, the turnovers come in bunches. We wear on people and I like our rotation."
Who wouldn't at this point? The No. 19 Mountaineers have scored hit or threatened 100 points in all four of their wins thus far, and they've thrown a line-up 12-deep at foes. That war of attrition went squarely to West Virginia in this one, as the Mountaineers scored 34 points of Illinois miscues, while allowing just one point on its six turnovers.
"It's always the case because we wear on them, they get tired and when you are tired you don't do things fundamentally as well," Huggins said.
That was the key as WVU built its first half edge to as large as 18 points at 31-13 with 8:29 to play before Illinois got within 33-24. The Mountaineers then delivered the haymaker, scoring 15 of the final 19 points of the period; it was part of the deciding push that saw West Virginia go on a 29-6 run over both halves to blew the game open at 62-31 with 15:32 to play.
Carter also had six rebound six steals and five assists while turning in the finest stat line of the game. Adrian chipped in a team-best eight boards, and Esa Ahmad and Elijah Macon combined for 18 points - 9 apiece - and 11 rebounds. Miles played 17 minutes in his return, managing eight points and three steals.
"It's good to get Dax back," Huggins said. "That helps me, because if need be I can sit JC or Tarik down and I have a guy who can take over for them."
West Virginia (4-0) managed to limit an Illinois offense netting 88.2 points per game to more than 30 below its season average. The Illini (4-2) could never gain quality looks through penetration, and finished with just 10 assists against 24 turnovers. They weren't any better from the outside, missing 13-of-17 three-pointers, including seven of eight in the second half during a futile comeback attempt.
"We have worked on cutting the dribbler off," Huggins said. "That was my pet peeve for the week after the Mississippi Valley State game, we didn't cut the dribbler off. We are doing better. I think this is supposedly one of the Big Ten teams to make the NCAA Tournament, so that means they will be at least in the top half of the Big Ten. It's hard to complain."
And yet, with Huggins...
"One thing is we can't turn the ball over as much as we turn it over. Until late, we had just four turnovers. To play as fast as we play and have four turnovers is pretty good. That's the best they have been by far."
West Virginia led 48-29 at the break. The Mountaineers forced Illinois into a season-high 13 first half turnovers and had edges in rebounding, field goal percentage and free throws. Most impressively, 11 different players scored, but no player had more than eight and five scored at least five points.
WVU now faces Temple at 3 p.m. Friday on ESPN2. The Owls rallied from 18 points down to defeat No. 25 Florida State 89-86. It will be the first meeting between the teams since 1998, when West Virginia best Temple 82-52 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to set up a meeting with Huggins' Cincinnati Bearcats. The Mountaineers trail the all-time series 34-36.
"Temple was struggling to make shots, then all the sudden they caught fire," Huggins said. "They had three guys who really scored for them and we have to do a good job with those guys. We can't turn it over and we have to make them turn it over.
WVU assistant coach Ron Everhart missed the game because of a health issue with his back. His return remains unknown.