CINCINNATI — West Virginia left Bob Huggins’ return to Cincinnati on Saturday dissatisfied with the product it showed on the floor, especially defensively.
The Mountaineers led for nearly 29 minutes, but Xavier outscored WVU by 17 in the second half and came away with an 84-74 victory at the Cintas Center in a Big East-Big 12 Battle matchup.
“I’m disappointed in our effort. I’m disappointed in the way we played the game,” Huggins said.
The Musketeers (6-3) entered the matchup with a top-20 scoring offense in the country and finished the game right at its average of 84 points. It was largely because of a 48-point second-half effort.
WVU (6-2) put it more on a lack of effort on their defensive end.
Xavier entered as the fourth-most efficient 3-point shooting team nationally, but despite still shooting at 42% from beyond the arc, the Musketeers knocked down only five 3s — 2.5 below its average. Xavier shot 54% from the field in the game — over 62% in the second half, with 20 free throw attempts over the final 20 minutes, too — and had success getting to the basket with dribble drives and pick-and-rolls much of the night. Xavier scored 42 points in the paint and 23 off free throws.
“At the end of the day, we need to have players that buy in completely,” WVU forward Tre Mitchell said. “We know how to guard ball screens. It’s just a matter of putting the player out there that is going to take that possession personally and stop the ball screen.
“It’s really just a matter of us executing and keeping the ball in front of us and not getting on the side of guys how we keep doing. I think a lot of it is just we have to play together. We’ve just got to have each other’s back on defense and be willing to sacrifice for one another.”
While the Musketeers didn’t take the lead for good until the final five minutes, it got off to a solid start offensively in the second half, despite a couple of bad turnovers early. WVU entered the second half with a seven-point lead, before Xavier quickly came back.
Xavier opened the period with a drive and layup from Desmond Claude, and by the first media timeout of the second half the Musketeers added points on two close-range makes from Zach Freemantle and a 3-pointer from Claude as a result of pick-and-rolls where Jimmy Bell Jr. was pulled up and a Xavier player ended up open.
“We spent three days working on the pick and roll and I thought we were doing a better job, but obviously we weren’t,” Huggins said. “I don’t know, if you’re a guard, should you stand there and wait for a 290-pound guy to go over and guard your guy for you? Probably not.”
Huggins said his players need to do a better job of preventing straight lines to the basket by standing in front of the opposing team instead of to the side and says “it’s a lot of want to.”
“When you do that, when you’re not in front of them, then they’ve got a straight line to the goal,” Huggins said. “Then everybody else has to help. Then they’re on the inside rebound position. It has a lot to do with the idea a lot of our guys just can’t guard the ball.”
Xavier grabbed nine offensive rebounds and outscored WVU 14-6 in second chance points in the game.
The 84 points allowed were the most allowed by WVU this season. In its only other loss, the Mountaineers allowed 80 points to Purdue. The 48 points Xavier scored in the second half are the most WVU has allowed in a half this season.
Bell reiterated Huggins’ point that guarding high ball screens and defending the pick-and-roll was a point of emphasis in practices leading up to Saturday’s game, and said they needed to be better at timing and communication.
“I feel like our guards, not to put it on them, but they didn’t get around the screens where they should have. The bigs, we probably got there a little bit later than we should’ve,” said Bell, who had 12 points and six rebounds in the loss. “It’s just something we’ve got to adjust to.”
Xavier closed the game on an 11-2 run over the final 4:05. The stretch started with three made free throws after Souley Boum was fouled by Joe Toussaint on an attempt from beyond the arc and included six more free throws. Boum, an All-Conference USA guard at UTEP the last two seasons before transferring to Xavier, was fouled on two 3-point attempts and had eight of his game-high 23 points during the stretch.
Mitchell said playing better together as a team defensively is “pretty even” between needing improvements in effort and communication.
“You need both of them in order to execute,” Mitchell said. “You could tell your teammate a million things, but if he doesn’t want to do it, he’s not going to do it. It’s just a matter of buying in, everybody getting bought in, everybody willing to sacrifice something for something else.
“I don’t think we’re far off from it, to be honest, because it’s something that we’ve been aware of from the jump, so it’s something we’re going to continue to work on. I’m sure our practice on Monday is going to be three times as intense as it usually is.”
WVU is next scheduled to play Wednesday in a 7 p.m. game at the WVU Coliseum against Navy.
“Hugs, he puts defense, he instills that on us and we didn’t do the job we should have today,” Bell said. “We’ll get back at it at practice Monday and just get ready for the next opponent and just get ready for the next game.”