PITTSBURGH — West Virginia coach Bob Huggins made it a point to schedule back-to-back games against No. 15 Virginia and Pittsburgh to give the 18th-ranked Mountaineers a taste of what awaits when Big 12 play begins in three weeks.
“I was trying to prepare them and we flunked that test,” Huggins said.
Well, maybe not technically. It just sort of felt that way to Huggins after his team nearly let a 20-point lead get away before holding on for a 69-60 over the Panthers on Saturday night in the renewal of the “Backyard Brawl.”
“This is getting to be finals week,” Huggins said. “I hope they do better on their finals than they did tonight.”
The Mountaineers (9-1) forced just 14 turnovers, were outrebounded by six and sent the Panthers to the free-throw line 31 times. Only Jevon Carter’s occasional brilliance and some lockdown defense over the final 5 minutes prevented a staggering upset.
“They kicked our butt on the glass,” Huggins said. “I wasn’t surprised. I told our guys for two days that’s what I was afraid was going to happen.”
Carter finished with a game-high 19 points but also ran into foul trouble in the second half, watching as the Panthers nearly erased all of an 18-point halftime deficit. Daxter Miles Jr. added 15 points and Lamont West finished with 13 points and 10 rebounds and the Mountaineers won their ninth straight following a season-opening loss to Texas A&M.
Still, work remains to be done. Pitt pulled within 61-59 when Marcus Carr completed a 4-point play with 5:31 left. The Panthers, however, never got any closer. Pitt missed its last six shots and turned it over twice as West Virginia escaped.
“We knew that we could beat this team,” said Carr, who finished with 12 points. “It was a matter of time of putting it all together. We still didn’t play our best (but) it’s another step in the right direction.”
Ryan Luther overcame early foul trouble to lead Pitt (5-5) with 13 points and 12 rebounds. Shamiel Stevenson added 12 points for the Panthers, who dissected West Virginia’s defense in the second half after shooting just 5 of 22 (23 percent) in the first half.
“We got our butts kicked in the first half,” Pitt coach Kevin Stallings said. “Guys of lesser character would have put their heads between their legs and thought the night was over … I couldn’t have asked any more out of them than they gave.”
The 185th meeting between the schools featured the programs in two very different places. The Mountaineers are a legitimate threat to challenge No. 2 Kansas in the Big 12, while the Panthers were picked to finish last in the ACC while undergoing what could be a lengthy rebuilding process.
Still, old habits die hard. Pitt offered a promotion that included “13-9” decals to customers if they bought a Panthers cap, the score of Pitt’s epic football upset of the Mountaineers a decade ago that kept West Virginia out of the Bowl Championship Series title game.
Then the game started and the punch Stallings told his team would come courtesy of the Mountaineers’ pressure defense arrived. West Virginia dominated at times during the opening 20 minutes. Carter went on a personal 12-0 run at one point and it seemed as if West Virginia was going to pull away.
It didn’t happen. Kham Davis hit a 3-pointer on Pitt’s first possession of the second half and pumped his fist at the Panthers bench, starting a wave that crested with Carr’s 4-point play.
“We don’t take too much consolation in a loss,” Luther said. “I thought we stuck together. We played extremely hard. If we keep snowballing, keep getting better in practice we’ll be better when conference play starts.”
The crowd of 7,748 was the largest of the season at the Petersen Events Center, though a considerable portion came courtesy of folks in blue-and-gold who made the short 70-mile trip from Morgantown.
“It sounded like a home game honestly,” Carter said.
West Virginia: The Mountaineers will have trouble in the Big 12 if the games are called tight. The offense needed either Carter or Miles on the court (and preferably both) to be functional. That will require them staying out of the kind of foul trouble they ran into in the second half.
Pitt: The Panthers are showing signs of progress. Measuring improvement in wins and losses could be difficult for a roster filled with nine freshmen, but Pitt’s effort and savvy in the second half provided concrete evidence the players are buying into whatever Stallings is selling.
West Virginia: has a week off then hosts Wheeling Jesuit in an exhibition game on Dec. 16.
Pitt: welcomes McNeese State on Dec. 16.