Mountaineers finished strong against Herd
MORGANTOWN - West Virginia's basketball team managed to check off a handful of goals Saturday night with its 74-64 win over Marshall at the Civic Center.
The most obvious was beating the Herd again.
It's not that a win in the annual in-state rivalry game is any indication of things to come. Quite the contrary. Some of the Mountaineers' better teams have failed to do that and some of its worst have not.
When WVU reached the NCAA's Elite Eight in 2005 and Sweet 16 in 2006, it was with a loss to Marshall on its resume. Ditto the 2011 team that made it to the second round.
And, of course, last year's 13-19 WVU team would have been a 20-loss squad save for a win over the Herd.
Still, the Mountaineers usually feel better about themselves when they don't have to carry around the stigma of having lost the game, which they have done only four times in the last 18 seasons.
There were other accomplishments, too.
One was finding a potential solution for its depth issue under the basket. Freshman Brandon Watkins might not have a lot of other double-doubles in his immediate future, but his 12 points and 11 rebounds against the Herd - that matched exactly his production in WVU's last seven games combined - at least gave a peek into his potential.
Fellow freshman Devin Williams can't be the team's only inside presence and now perhaps he isn't.
But perhaps the most significant accomplishment for the Mountaineers was winning a close game.
The Mountaineers had played just four this season and lost all four by single digits. The team's previous six wins were by an average of 27 points and the closest was by 13.
This was a game the Mountaineers didn't even lead until the final four minutes and then controlled in crunch time.
True, it came against a Marshall team that is now 4-6 and has had its own issues with finishing, but it was at least a start.
"It's a great sign,'' said point guard Juwan Staten, who pretty much took control offensively down the stretch and finished with a game-high 19 points. "The last couple of games that have been close, we haven't been able to do this.''
Indeed, West Virginia has played three games this season that could have gone either way in the final minutes.
The Mountaineers blew leads against No. 20 Gonzaga and, early in the season, Virginia Tech. They were within a couple of possessions of now-No. 4 Wisconsin.
All ended in losses, as did a game at Missouri that the Tigers dominated until WVU made it close at the end.
"We fought back and we won. And I think it shows that we're learning how to fight,'' said sophomore Eron Harris, who certainly didn't have one of his best games (11 points and just 1 of 6 on 3-pointers), but who put the finishing touches on the win with a pair of free throws and a dunk to close out the scoring. "That's really all it was, just fighting.''
After that kind of fight, now West Virginia can actually take it easy for a while.
The players must finish final exams early next week, but over the nearly three-week period ahead, the Mountaineers play just two games. They are home Sunday to Purdue, don't play again until the following Sunday against William & Mary in Charleston, then begin Big 12 play the next weekend with a Saturday-Monday road trip to TCU and Texas Tech.
"Hopefully we can take this into the next game and keep going,'' Harris said. "We need to keep fighting like this and not go up and down.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dphickman1