It's not often that West Virginia has gone into a Capital Classic game against Marshall with these kinds of disadvantages. Yes, the Mountaineers were slight favorites, but they were also facing the best rebounding team in the country without one of their best rebounders.
If ever there was a chance for the Herd to grab West Virginia and throw it to the ground, this was it.
But a funny thing happened on the way to what looked like a great chance for Marshall to win back-to-back games in the series for only the third time. The rebounding battle wasn't even close and it wasn't in the Herd's favor.
West Virginia, playing without Deniz Kilicli after the burly forward injured an ankle this week in practice, not only beat Marshall, the Mountaineers outrebounded the Herd by 10 and ran away with a 78-62 win Wednesday night at the Civic Center. It was the second-largest margin of victory in the series' 40-game history.
"Coach said if we outrebounded them we'd win,'' said redshirt freshman Kevin Noreen, who replaced Kilicli in the starting lineup. "Deniz is a great player and good presence in the post. He takes pressure off of [Kevin Jones]. But I think everybody has confidence in anybody we put in there.''
Indeed, enough pressure was taken off Jones that he was able to score a game-high 25 points to go along with seven rebounds and three assists to lead West Virginia (14-5) to its fifth win in the last six games against Marshall (13-5), while avenging last season's 75-71 loss.
"There was a lot of emotion bottled up from last year that we just couldn't get rid of,'' said Jones, who leads the Big East in both scoring and rebounding. "It's starting to go away now.''
Well, perhaps for Jones and the Mountaineers it's going away. For Marshall and second-year coach Tom Herrion, though, it might sting a while simply because of the way it happened. Even in losing 16 of the 21 games in the series since it was anchored in Charleston, the Herd has almost always made things competitive. But after WVU took control in the second half MU had no answer.
"I thought we were grossly outplayed and that's very uncharacteristic for us,'' Herrion said. "I thought they took it to us from a physicality standpoint around the basket, on the glass. They beat us for every 50-50 ball. Give them credit, but I didn't think we responded very well.''
How big was West Virginia's edge on the boards? Well, consider that a year ago MU's backcourt of DeAndre Kane and Damier Pitts scored 43 points while making 11-of-24 shots and 6-of-14 free throws and the Herd won. Wednesday Kane and Pitts had 34 points and actually shot better - 15-for-31 (although Kane missed all five of his 3s) - yet Marshall was thumped, primarily because the Herd couldn't hang with WVU on the boards.
And it wasn't just because of the play of the Mountaineers' big men. Jones actually failed for a rare time to record a double-double, but guards Truck Bryant, Jabarie Hinds and Gary Browne combined for 17 boards.
"If we could get our guards to do what they did [against MU] all the time we'd be a lot better,'' said West Virginia coach Bob Huggins, who joked after outrebounding the No. 1 rebounding team in the country by 37-27 that perhaps he should keep Kilicli dressed in street clothes all the time. "Kevin's going to get his, but 17 between the three guards is pretty good.''
Still, there were times in this one where it appeared that Marshall would at least take it down to the wire, if not dominate, which the Herd did for an all-too-brief stretch of the first half (a 10-0 run during a streak in which MU made 10-of-12 shots late in the first half to give MU a 27-20 lead).
But just when it looked like the Herd might run away like it did a year ago - pulling away in the first half and extending it in the second - West Virginia toughened on defense and started defending the transition baskets that Marshall was getting. Marshall missed two contested alley-oop plays, Aaron Brown banked in an 18-footer (after an offensive rebound), Hinds used an ankle-breaking move for a layup and Bryant hit a 3 at the end of the half and the game was tied at 30.
The second half was close only until Jones got warmed up. His two post moves started a 10-0 run that gave WVU the lead for good, and over the final 12 minutes it was never really close.
That it was Jones who sparked West Virginia's decisive run didn't surprise Herrion.
"It's the reason why people think he's the player of the year in the Big East,'' Herrion said.
It was far from just Jones, though. Bryant, after missing seven of his first eight shots, hit that 3-pointer to end the half and finished strong with 22 points and seven rebounds. Hinds was flashy on offense at times and had 10 points, while Browne added 10.
Kane had 19 and Pitts 17 for Marshall, which started the first half 2-for-11 shooting and the second half 3-for-11. MU warmed up the first half but not the second.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickm...@aol.com.
WVU 78, Herd 62
West Virginia (14-5)
Player FG FT R A P
Kevin Jones 8-12 6-6 7 3 25