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Mountaineers top Lehigh 78-68

December 31, 2018

MORGANTOWN — The 2018-19 West Virginia men’s basketball team finished its non-conference schedule the way it began: by letting a team from a small conference hang around too long.

But unlike the Mountaineers’ harrowing encounter with Jacksonville State last weekend, there was no last-second drama. All West Virginia (8-4) needed to do on Sunday was wait out a couple second-half Lehigh runs and pull away for a 78-68 win.

“I feel like we were locked in, especially in that second half,” senior forward Esa Ahmad said. “When we had to get stops, we got them. I thought we did a better job of communicating, talking on switches and screens. It made our job a lot easier.”

Still searching for a consistent winning equation amid injuries, head coach Huggins changed his rotations and provided a glimpse of the future on Sunday. Freshman guard Jordan McCabe received the first start of his career, becoming the fourth Mountaineer to start at point guard this season.

Meanwhile, in his second career game, freshman big man Derek Culver announced his presence with authority. Culver recorded the first double-double of his career on Sunday, pushing around Lehigh’s frontcourt for 11 points and 11 rebounds in 19 minutes.

After being suspended for the first 10 games of the season, Culver looked to be the rebounding force Huggins promised he could be Sunday. For his part, Culver extended credit to assistant coach Erik Martin, who helped him better settle into the flow of the game.

“Coach Martin was helping me prepare myself for this game, working on taking my time,” Culver said. “That was the biggest thing that I had to work on. In first game I was speeding up, rushing my shots, but after I got my first bucket and I got to the free throw line, I was at ease.”

Lehigh came into the day as the thirdbest 3-point shooting team in the country, but West Virginia was largely able to suppress their opportunities from deep. With West Virginia controlling the boards and limiting their turnovers, Lehigh struggled to get out in transition and find open shooters, shooting below 40 percent until the last minutes.

Meanwhile, it was West Virginia who spent the afternoon launching triple after triple. With junior guard Beetle Bolden coming off the bench for the first time all season, Huggins slotted him into a mostly off-ball role as a shooter, and watched him go off for a career-high 22 points on 7-14 shooting.

Bolden’s move off the ball was precipitated by the nagging injury to his hand that has caused him to miss time this season. Although Bolden shone in a secondary role on Sunday, Huggins still sees the junior as his starter at that position moving forward.

“It’s hard to be a point guard when you don’t have a hand,” Huggins said. “I think today was good for him and I think he’ll make some strides as a point guard, but he had no chance to be a point guard before.”

Ahmad also turned in 21 points and 9 rebounds, while Wesley Harris added 10 points and five rebounds as West Virginia dominated the rebounding battle 52-25.

West Virginia will open up its conference slate Wednesday, when the Mountaineers host the No. 11 Texas Tech Red Raiders at the WVU Coliseum.

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