PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP)—West Virginia was determined not to blow a double-digit lead the way it did in a triple-overtime loss just five days earlier.
So the eighth-ranked Mountaineers started aggressively, withstood a rally early in the second half and used their big height advantage to dominate inside and beat Providence 88-74 on Wednesday night.
“We haven’t been as good as we need to be in closing games,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said. “You keep doing that, sooner or later it jumps up and bites you. It jumped up and bit us last Friday.”
That’s when Pittsburgh overcame a five-point deficit in the last 35 seconds of regulation and handed the Mountaineers their second straight loss, 98-95 in triple overtime.
“It set us back, tremendously,” Da’Sean Butler said. “You can’t really sulk and complain about stuff. We were really hungry for the win. We wanted to come out aggressive.”
The Mountaineers took a 25-4 lead by scoring 23 straight points, but Providence cut that to 46-28 at halftime and 48-42 with a 14-2 rally to open the second half. West Virginia recovered by scoring the next nine points and stayed in front by at least 10 the rest of the way.
West Virginia (20-5, 9-4 Big East) was led by Devin Ebanks with 21 points. It had dropped from the No. 5 ranking with losses to Villanova and Pittsburgh.
Providence (12-14, 4-10) lost its sixth straight. The Friars were led by Jamine Peterson, their tallest starter at 6-foot-6, with 20 points and 15 rebounds. Four starters for the Mountaineers were taller.
“They just outphysicaled us, outsized us and definitely outrebounded us,” Friars coach Keno Davis said.
The challenge doesn’t get any easier for Providence, which will face its fourth consecutive Top 10 opponent when it hosts No. 5 Syracuse on Tuesday night. Davis must find a way to keep his players from getting discouraged.
“I’m open for suggestion,” he said. “I’m worried about how to keep the coach from not being discouraged.”
Brian McKenzie, Vincent Council and Marshon Brooks each scored 13 for the Friars. For the Mountaineers, Wellington Smith finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds. Butler also scored 16.
West Virginia’s win broke a tie for third place in the Big East with Pittsburgh. Villanova and Syracuse lead the conference at 11-2.
The Mountaineers were much better inside from start to finish. Of their 64 points from the field, 50 were in the paint. They allowed just 10 offensive rebounds to a Providence team that was averaging 17.2 this season. And they outscored the Friars 24-9 on second-chance points.
Providence led 4-2 before Smith began the 23-0 run when he converted an offensive rebound. Butler scored seven points in the surge, including two three-point plays, as the Mountaineers rolled to a 25-4 lead with 11:04 left in the half. Six of their nine baskets in that spurt were layups.
The Friars finally scored on two free throws by Brooks with 10:40 remaining as they outscored the Mountaineers 24-21 after the 23-point outburst.
Providence kept rolling in the second half when Peterson and Duke Mondy hit 3-pointers and Mondy converted an offensive rebound, forcing Huggins to call a time out.
“I didn’t think we were very assertive against their pressure,” Huggins said. “I just think we were … lethargic. I think they’re not used to me coming in (at halftime) and talking to them in a real calm voice, maybe.”
Peterson made a layup when play resumed before Smith ended the 10-0 run with a tip-in. Then, Sharaud Curry hit two free throws and Council sank a layup. Suddenly, the Mountaineers’ lead was down to 48-42 and there was still 16:37 remaining.
That’s when the they resumed playing like the highly ranked—and much taller—team they are.
Ebanks, Kevin Jones and Smith made consecutive layups, and Smith tacked on a free throw. Butler’s basket made it 57-42 with 13:09 to go and the Mountaineers were rolling.
“They’re going to pose a lot of mismatches and a lot of trouble for whoever they get to meet in the NCAA tournament,” Davis said. “With the right pairing, I think they could go pretty far.”