First Test Passed

While both teams' first half performances may have left their coaches planning to fill the Christmas stockings of all of their players with coal, Bob Huggins' team put enough pressure on its nationally-ranked opposition in the second half of Wednesday night's game to turn that coal into a diamond.

Wellington Smith hit five 3-point field goals in the first 10 minutes of the second half, leading his team on an 11-2 run that turned a nail-biter into a double digit lead for WVU, which went on to win 76-66 over No. 21 Ole Miss at the Coliseum.

Smith's long-range bombs woke the No. 6 Mountaineers out of their offensive slumber.

The team had struggled mightily in the first half, committing seven turnovers in the first eight minutes of the contest. Still, West Virginia held a 29-26 halftime lead because of its work on defense and on the offensive boards.

The Mountaineers (9-0) outrebounded the Rebels 31-14 in the first 20 minutes, including a 17-6 edge on the offensive glass.

"They destroyed us on the glass," said Ole Miss head coach (and one of Huggins' former assistants at Cincinnati) Andy Kennedy. "It's what they do."

That helped the home squad overcome poor shooting and all-around shaky offensive play, which may have been at least partially due to the injury limitations of point guards Truck Bryant and Joe Mazzulla.

Bryant fought through pain to play 17 minutes, while Mazzulla did not enter the lineup until the final minute of the contest.

But as teams are prone to do, WVU improved its play in the second half, when a few jump shots -- particularly those from Smith -- began to fall. The senior forward scored a career-high 19 points, improving upon his previous mark of 14 (set in a game against Rutgers during his sophomore year).

Just as the Rebels had showed signs of life on offense out of the intermission (tallying eight points in the first 3:30 of the second half), Smith kept the visitors at arm's length by hitting a pair of 3-pointers.

Da'Sean Butler added a leaner of his own, and when Huggins called timeout at the 16:30 mark, Ole Miss had failed to eat into WVU's halftime lead despite the increased offensive output.

But it was the back-to-back 3-pointers that Smith hit out of that timeout that allowed the Mountaineers to open the gap on the Rebels. After Casey Mitchell added a trifecta of his own, Kennedy's defense began to extend outward to try to limit the long-range damage.

This game recap presented by The Book Exchange

That made things easy for John Flowers, who scored on an uncontested lay-in off a backdoor cut to extend WVU's lead to 48-36.

Ole Miss (10-2) would not go quietly. The visitors from Oxford countered with a 7-1 spurt to draw within 49-43 at the under 12:00 media timeout.

But Smith was Johnny on the spot out of the break once more, canning his fifth 3-pointer of the half to stop the bleeding. The Rebels would fail to draw within fewer than seven points of West Virginia the rest of the way.

While the senior from New Jersey has not been known as a long-range threat through most of his Mountaineer career, Huggins said he was not totally caught off guard by the senior's big day.

"He does it in practice when he's on balance," said the third-year WVU coach. "Wells' biggest problem is that he doesn't stay on balance all the time."

"I told him if he could step in, then shoot it."

Defensively, it was more of the same from a Mountaineer team that has made its living with a tough man-to-man attack and hard work on the glass thus far this season.

The Rebels shot only 36.4 percent from the field (including a paltry 5-of-24 mark, or 20.8 percent, from 3-point range). While four of Kennedy's players scored in double figures, only one (Murphy Holloway) hit 50 percent or more of his field goal attempts.

"Defensively, that's more like us," Huggins said. "We were atrocious on Saturday (in a 2-point win over Cleveland State)."

Kennedy, much like his former mentor is prone to do, had a slightly more pessimistic take about the effort of his own team.

"We compounded our inability to rebound with our inability to make an open shot at an embarrassing level," he said. "And that is a recipe for disaster."

For WVU, Devin Ebanks returned to the starting line-up, scoring 14 points and grabbing 13 rebounds (including eight on the offensive end) in the process of playing a game-high 33 minutes.

Forward Kevin Jones added 12 points and nine boards, and guard Casey Mitchell came off the bench to tally nine points and eight rebounds in only 19 minutes of action.

While Jones managed to put up decent numbers, it was an uncharacteristically quiet performance for the sophomore. Butler's game was also relatively uneventful, as the senior had only nine points and five rebounds in his 30 minutes.

In a way, that was oddly encouraging to Huggins.

"That's a good team we just beat. That's a top 20 team," he said. "Our two most consistent players did not play well, and we still played a pretty good game."

"We've got to become more consistent, particularly at the offensive end. Defensively, we were worlds better than we were last Saturday. Now, we've got to try to fix the offense."

WVU will try to polish its performance on that end of the floor over Christmas, before beginning Big East play against Seton Hall on Saturday.

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