UC, State take momentum into showdown tonight
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It's a rivalry where records don't matter, but it adds to the intensity when the University of Charleston and West Virginia State are both on the upswing.
Such is the case when the Yellow Jackets visit the Golden Eagles at 7:30 tonight in a Mountain East Conference matchup at Eddie King Gym on UC's South Ruffner campus.
UC (10-4 overall, 7-3 MEC) has won five in a row to surge into third place in the conference under the guidance of first-year coach Dwaine Osborne.
After starting slow, State (7-6, 4-6) has been gaining steam with six wins in its last eight games, fueled by the return of Bo King, a former Charleston Catholic High School standout who became eligible for the second semester.
"I think it's going to be a fun night,'' said Osborne, who will be experiencing his first taste of the intra-Kanawha County rivalry. "It's a game with a lot of history. [West Virginia State has been] playing pretty well and we're playing pretty well so it should make for an exciting game.''
"It's one of these games you want to walk around town and say you won,'' added State coach Bryan Poore. "We've had a couple of pretty spirited practices. Hopefully we're finding ourselves. We've shown some flashes, but we haven't put it together for 40 minutes, which is what you have to do against the upper-echelon teams.''
King, a 6-foot-1 senior guard, is leading the Yellow Jackets, who are 6-2 since his return, in scoring at 21.8 points per game. Sophomore guard Dominic Phillips adds 18.0 points and a team-high 55 assists while senior guard Anton Hutchins turns in 17.8 points per game on 54.6 percent shooting and 5.8 rebounds per contest.
Poore said State getting three wins in its last four road games has made the team stronger.
"I think we are kind of getting battle tested,'' he said. "Playing on the road gets you to play with a certain kind of toughness. It really kind of makes you grow up and come together. Maybe that's what this long road streak has done for us.''
The Golden Eagles have bounced back after dropping three in a row behind a defense that's tops in the MEC, surrendering just 69.4 points per game. UC is also No. 1 in 3-point field-goal defense, limiting opponents to 30.2 percent.
Xavier Humphrey, a 6-6 senior forward, is the top scorer for UC at 17.8 points and adds 5.1 rebounds per game while 6-8 sophomore forward Aleksander Kesic chips in 13.8 points and 5.4 boards. Those are the only two players in double-figure scoring for the Golden Eagles, but they have five players averaging between 6.0 and 9.4 points.
"For us it's about just trying to get better and improve on the things we've been working on,'' Osborne said. "We have guys that understand the big picture of what we're trying to do and what makes our team function well.
"We're just trying to do the things we practice and it's been a pretty good recipe for us when we're able to do that. I think we're playing well. I do think we're playing with pretty good energy. We're making strides in terms of just improving as a whole in the last two weeks or so.''
The State-UC matchup stacks up as a contrast in styles as State is third in the league in scoring offense, averaging 87.1 points, while UC, which is next to last in the 12-team league in scoring at 74.0, is tops in defense. The Yellow Jackets are last in defensive scoring, giving up 92.8 points per game.
"It's going to be difficult for us a in a lot of ways,'' Osborne said of defending State. "They haven't scored less than 80 points in a game since November.
"I don't think we've given up 80 more than twice. Our ability to defend them is going to be important. The more they score the more they're able to put pressure on you. We're just going to have our hands full to slow them down.''
Poore sees the rebound battle and taking care of the ball as keys for the Yellow Jackets.
"If you give the other team 10 or 15 more shots than you're getting it's hard to win,'' said the State coach.
"I think we really need to stay within ourselves. The team that stays the most even keeled and doesn't get too high or low and execute, that's the team that's going to win. It's going to be a good game. It's two good teams that are pretty evenly matched.''
Reach Tommy R. Atkinson at email@example.com or 304-348-4811.