West Virginia jumped out to a 20-4 lead in just over eight minutes of action, and seemed to be destined to have a rare blowout against a Blue Demons squad which has struggled mightily through much of the season.
But the hosts were resilient, pulling themselves up off the mat after the second media timeout of the first half and mustering an 18-6 run, clawing all the way back within 26-22.
From there, a sluggish game ensued, mired by fouls and missed shots. A Devin Ebanks lay-in ended a span of 8:18 without a field goal for WVU and brought the squad’s advantage back up to six points at 31-25.
That started a brief 8-0 run for the visitors, but a 3-pointer from Will Walker just before the end of the half pulled DePaul back within 37-28 at the intermission.
The slow pace that defined the latter stages of the first 20 minutes (and would go on to be the theme of the second half as well) was perhaps foreshadowed by a delay of about 15 minutes as officials at Allstate Arena failed to get the game clock working.
Things didn’t seem to go much faster once that clock actually started ticking again.
The Mountaineers (16-3, 5-2) managed only 25 points in the second half, but DePaul couldn’t continue its comeback because it scored only 18 of its own.
Repeated whistles from referees may have had something to do with that. The squads combined for 43 fouls.
Six players ended the contest with four personals apiece, and the Blue Demons’ Krys Faber was ejected after throwing an elbow that caught the head of WVU’s Da’Sean Butler.
Perhaps not surprisingly, another lengthy field goal draught ensued for the visitors, who went 7:03 without a bucket in the middle of the final period.
But with Mac Koshwal, Will Walker and Michael Bizoukas all playing with four fouls each, DePaul simply couldn’t muster enough offense to seriously mount another challenge.
Indeed, after Wellington Smith hit a 3-pointer to push West Virginia’s lead out to 12 points (the first score of the second half), the Blue Demons would never again come within single digits of their opposition.
The slow pace and repeated foul calls seemed to have Huggins contemplating a philosophical change in his approach to the game, as he expressed frustration with the struggles his team has generating offense out of its motion system.
“I am firmly of the belief that you just get three guards and dribble the ball, dribble the ball, you’re going to go to the foul line,” he said. “The days of motion and cutting and filling may end up being a thing of the past. We’re going to have to look at changing our recruiting philosophy a little bit.”
That statement, perhaps motivated by the frustration of the moment, may have also centered around the success Koshwal had in limited action. The center came off the bench to score seven points and grab seven rebounds.
“We’ve got young big guys and we’re going to have to get those guys to mature here, because Koshwal really had his way with us inside,” Huggins said. “I want to go back and know why.”
Indeed, the third-year WVU head coach may be searching for some answers -- even after a relatively easy win -- because of the way the Blue Demons had success in many areas of the game.
DePaul (8-12, 1-7) had 14 offensive rebounds -- one more than the visitors. It could only convert those into five second-chance points, but Huggins still was not pleased.
“We didn’t rebound the ball as well as we should have,” he said.
“We give them 14 offensive rebounds. That’s just not us. We didn’t do a very good job on the glass.”
With the kind of sloppy play ensuing that could cause his team to actually regress instead of progress, Huggins simply decided he had seen enough in the final minutes.
He recalled turning around to tell assistant coach Larry Harrison, ‘Let’s just win and get out of here.’ The head man then told his players to run clock on offense, helping the squad get back en route to Morgantown as quickly as possible.
Four WVU starters had 14 points apiece -- Butler, Ebanks, Smith and point guard Truck Bryant. That helped minimize the impact of an uncharacteristically poor night from the team’s reserves, who combined to score only two points -- one each for John Flowers and Dalton Pepper on free throws.
Huggins tried to focus on the positives after what he thought were solid performances from his starters.
“I thought Devin was good today. He very easily could have went for 22 or 24 points if he makes the easy ones,” Huggins said. “Wells just gives us a big boost initially, and Truck had a heck of a game. Truck played well and is getting better all the time. He’s starting to understand a bit better, I think, what needs to be done.”
“We had two good days of practice preparing to come down here. They were as focused as what they’ve been in a long time.”
While the head coach may have been internally struggling with whether to be disappointed or encouraged, he told his team it could be in many worse spots than the one it finds itself in near the mid-point of the Big East Conference schedule.
“I told them in there, ‘It’s a win. Nobody can take it away from you. You’re 16-3 and getting ready to go home and play a couple. If you’re nicked up, see the doc and get treated, and let’s get ready Thursday to prepare for Louisville.’”