The Mountaineers, behind Joe Alexander's 20 points, beat UMBC 86-62 on Saturday to win its eighth game in nine tries. The 8-1 start under new head coach Bob Huggins is the best for a first-year coach in 62 years and the second-best in school history.
"Somebody said to me that we were off to a great start, and that's fine, as long as we understand that's what it is," Huggins said. "We're nine games in. It's a marathon, not a sprint. We play 31, then four more in the conference tournament and you can play six in the NCAA. That's 41 games, and we are nine games in."
The 24-point win was the second-closest at home this season for a team that leads the nation in winning percentage at 30.1 points and has beaten its five home foes by an average of 40. Alexander has been a major reason why.
The junior, whose average is up six points to 16 per game, scored eight points during a key 16-4 run that put West Virginia ahead 30-18 with 7:03 left in the first half. Before the push, the Mountaineers trailed 16-14 after being behind just twice in the previous four games.
He also put an exclamation point on the win by taking an alley-oop lob from Darris Nichols on an inbounds play and dunking the ball. Alexander caught the lob two feet above the rim before slamming it to end a 13-2 run that pushed the edge to 56-35 with 15 minutes remaining. It mirrored WVU's opening basket, when the 6-8 forward spun off a defender and dunked off an alley-oop. He made nine of 11 shots overall, including the last basket of the first half for a 43-29 lead at the break.
"We realize how gifted Joe is, and we shouldn't be surprised that he finished with 20 and eight," Huggins said. "We expect Joe to 20 and eight or 20 and 10 every time out because he is gifted enough. Let's be honest. If Joe doesn't give us 20 and 10 or 20 and eight, we aren't going to win the Big East."
West Virginia eventually extended the edge to 66-39 with 11 minutes left on Da'Sean Butler's free throw. UMBC, whose 7-3 start was its best in 22 Division I seasons, never got closer than 21 points afterward in taking its worst loss of the season.
Darris Nichols added 16 for WVU. Six came via free throws, including one following a technical called on the UMBC bench with 13 minutes left. Butler scored 14 and grabbed a career-high tying nine rebounds, one rebound off his first double-double. Alexander had eight rebounds, part of a 39-24 West Virginia advantage overall.
"He has a lot of potential," Alex Ruoff said of Alexander, who played scarcely down the stretch last season after a series of poor outings. "He has had a great season, but he has a lot further that he can go. Each game he is more and more in the game. His skills have always been there. Now he is learning more."
Brian Hodges scored 18 points for UMBC. Ray Barbosa added 14. The Mountaineers scored 19 points off 16 UMBC turnovers and also had a 17-4 edge in points in the paint. West Virginia's bench outscored UMBC's 26-4. WVU has now won 38 of their last 40 games versus nonconference foes, including 19 straight at home.
"They wore us down a little bit," UMBC head coach Randy Monroe said. "They ouitrebounded us, and my assistants always say the biggest play in basketball is the offensive and defensive rebound. Grabbing a rebound is bigger than scoring two points. Hat's off to Bob. He is implementing this and that and they are doing a good job of buying in to his strategy."