While most of the attention in the world of Mountaineer sports was focused solely on the football team's romp over Connecticut, West Virginia's men's basketball team was also scoring a lopsided victory on Saturday afternoon.
Coming to Newark for the final two games of the Legends Classic, West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins had one goal in mind: 2-0. Friday night's narrow loss to Top 10 Tennessee eliminated any chance of that happening. The Mountaineers were able to salvage a split thanks in no small part to an outstanding second half as West Virginia took out New Mexico State by a final of 75-61.
Not that Huggins is exactly thrilled to be heading back to Morgantown with a loss on the docket.
"I think it sucks," he said. "We came here to leave 2-0. I mean, it's better than the alternative."
The Mountaineers used a balanced scoring effort of four players in double-figures, and pulled away in the second half behind solid frontcourt production from forwards Da'Sean Butler and Joe Alexander, not to mention a swarming defense that frustrated the Aggies from beginning to end.
Alexander had his best game – or at least his best half – of the young season with 16 points, 10 rebounds, and four blocked shots to pace the Mountaineers. The junior did all of this despite being clawed and held all afternoon by NMSU players looking to take him out of his game. To his credit, Alexander never blinked or gave in to the physicality of the game. If anything, he fought right back.
"You know that some teams are going to be like that, so it comes with the territory," he said. "You have to adjust to it, though. Sometimes teams come in like that right off the bat, and you have to quickly adjust to it by playing physical right back at them."
Butler, a Newark native playing back in his hometown for the second time in his Mountaineer career, scored 13 points, grabbed four rebounds, dished out two assists, blocked a shot, and recorded two steals to fill out the stat sheet for West Virginia.
"Da'Sean has probably been our most consistent guy, and I think that he is probably our most versatile guy," Huggins said. "We can put him on perimeter guys defensively, or we can put him on post guys. We can play him inside, or we can play him outside. We run a lot of things through him."
During a stretch in the second half, literally everything the Mountaineers were able to do went through Butler. For the second straight game, the sophomore fueled a West Virginia run in the final frame, this time scoring seven points in a span of less than two minutes to propel his team from a two point deficit to a five point lead. The Mountaineers would not trail the rest of the game, with that 9-2 run setting the tone for the game's final 12 minutes. Moments later, Butler capped off the fury by finding fellow New Jersey native Wellington Smith under the basket for a two-handed slam.
As easy as they made things look in the second half, West Virginia had all it could handle from the Aggies to begin the game. The reigning WAC Tournament champions led the Mountaineers for much of the first half, with sophomore guard Jonathan Gibson pouring in 12 points against West Virginia's man-to-man defense. The Aggies were able to get a lot of open looks from downtown, with point guard Fred Peete penetrating into the lane and kicking back to either Gibson or junior guard Paris Carter for an open shot. In the second half, Huggins' defense buckled down to take away the open looks that had been prevalent in the first half.
"We didn't give them step-in shots," he said. "People can shoot it better when they get step-in shots. We gave them too many of those in the first half."
With the defensive intensity at full bore, the Mountaineers were able to force 19 Aggie turnovers, leading to 14 points for the Blue and Gold. Huggins also got a big lift off the bench from Smith, who finished with nine points and three rebounds in 20 minutes of action.
Overall, it was a much better effort from the men in blue when compared with Friday night's bundle of missed opportunities against Tennessee.
"I think we just played more calm and collected this game," Alexander said. "Everyone on our team just played better, and had a better game."
West Virginia (3-1) returns to the Coliseum on Tuesday night to face University of Maryland-Eastern Shore. Tipoff is scheduled for 7:00.