West Virginia has had a few close calls lately while remaining one of the nation’s six unbeatens, none tighter than an overtime road win in its first Big East game.
A visit from the team that handed the sixth-ranked Mountaineers their worst loss last season could be another.
West Virginia looks for its first 11-0 start in 52 years Tuesday night as Marquette heads into Morgantown for its conference opener.
A 73-66 win over Texas A&M on Nov. 27 in the semifinals of the 76 Classic was the only real test the Mountaineers (10-0, 1-0) faced during their first seven games, but the last three have featured considerably more drama. A last-second Da’Sean Butler layup lifted West Virginia to a two-point win at Cleveland State on Dec. 19, then Wellington Smith’s strong second half paved the way to a 76-66 win over then-No. 15 Mississippi on Wednesday.
The Mountaineers appeared to be on their way to another relatively comfortable win Saturday at Seton Hall, but barely survived. West Virginia surrendered a 10-point lead with less than a minute left before bouncing back to win 90-84 in overtime despite Pirates guard Jeremy Hazell’s 41 points.
“It’s a huge concern,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said of the blown lead. “Our two guys missed the front ends of 1-and-1. If we make those, then it really doesn’t matter.”
Despite the troublesome finish, Huggins’ team escaped with some positives. Kevin Jones had 19 points to match his average from his past three games and added 14 rebounds, while Butler had his first 20-point game in nearly a month.
No player was more instrumental, though, than sophomore Devin Ebanks. The 6-foot-9 swingman has spent the past two games running the point, and while finishing with 14 points and 13 rebounds against Ole Miss, he committed seven turnovers.
Ebanks didn’t give it away once against the Pirates, however, finishing with a career-high 22 points, 17 rebounds and seven assists while playing all 45 minutes.
“He’s starting to come around and show that he can become one of the best players in the best conference in the history of college basketball,” Huggins said. “I’m amazed he didn’t turn it over.”
West Virginia hasn’t started 11-0 since opening with 14 straight wins in 1957-58.
Ebanks and Butler combined for 24 points on 10 of 21 shooting Jan. 10 against Marquette (9-3, 0-0), but didn’t get much help from their teammates. The rest of the Mountaineers were 11 of 39 from the field in a 75-53 loss in Milwaukee in which the Golden Eagles outscored West Virginia 46-22 after halftime.
Butler had 13 points as the unranked Mountaineers knocked off No. 10 Marquette 79-64 on Jan. 6, 2008, in the Golden Eagles’ last visit to Morgantown.
Only Lazar Hayward remains from Marquette’s nucleus that also included Jerel McNeal, Wesley Matthew and Dominic James the past two seasons, and the senior (18.7 points per game) has carried his club offensively. He had 23 points Sunday in a 102-62 rout of Presbyterian, leading six Golden Eagles in doubles figures as they shot a season-high 60.9 percent.
“We did really good things more consecutively than we have over the last month,” coach Buzz Williams said.
McNeal, Matthews and James (56 points) outscored West Virginia by themselves in last season’s meeting, while Hayward was held to seven points.
Butler, meanwhile, picked up five of the Mountaineers’ 22 fouls. Marquette was whistled for 13.
“I would love to wax eloquently about (the officiating), but I can’t,” Huggins said.
West Virginia has won 26 straight games when scoring at least 70 points.