Morgantown, Virginia — Seizing the opportunity was a problem for West Virginia last month.
The Mountaineers came close to wasting another man in Saturday’s final round of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge against No. 15 Auburn.
West Virginia didn’t trail, but had to hold off a blistering rally for an 80-77 win until Tigers’ Wendell Green missed a three-point attempt at the buzzer.
“We desperately needed it. WVU point guard Kedrian Johnson had seven points and six assists but missed two late free throws to keep the Tigers hopeful.
The Mountaineers (13-8) put together one of the better halves this season, building a 45-29 lead. Still, Auburn (16-5) shot more than 56% of his shots in the second half (32-18) and he was in the single digits at 11:10 at the end.
“We may have called too many ball screens in the first half,” said Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl. “We didn’t run a ball screen attack when they attacked us. With those short rolls, we couldn’t do a great job again. We focused on the post-up game in the second half.”
The Tigers squandered a chance to pull, even at 68, when KD Johnson was unable to put an end to a traditional 3-point play and missed a free throw with 3 minutes and 59 seconds remaining.
Stevenson’s sixth of seven triples led the Mountaineers four with 3:38 remaining. Jaylin Williams explained his next three points to bring Auburn to within one of him, but with 2:17 left he could have tied the game at 71. split the throw of
Stevenson answered with a 3 in the corner after receiving an inbounds pass from Kedrian Johnson and past Allen Flanigan to give WVU a 74–70 lead with 2:03 remaining.
“I was going in like I should have been in,” said Stevenson, who scored a career-high 31 points. “A lot of games you don’t get a lot of space. I’ve been in the dumpster and it’s been a long couple of weeks. I haven’t fallen, it really took a toll on me and if I don’t score, it hurts the team.”
The Mountaineers held a separate 6-point lead the moment James Okoncuo and Joe Toussaint hit two free throws each, the latter making it 78-72 with 57 seconds remaining.
After producing the stoppage, Kedrian Johnson missed a 1-and-1 front end with 38 seconds on the clock, and Williams’ Trey allowed Auburn to cut the deficit in half with 32 seconds.
Toussaint then had a pass stolen by KD Johnson and Williams attempted a tying triple, but Kedrian Johnson missed and rebounded. Johnson went 1-for-2 on the ensuing free throw before Auburn post player Johnny Bloom scored in the paint to cut the Mountaineers’ lead to two.
In a chance to settle the verdict, Stevenson made 1 of 2 free throws and his mistake was bounced to Green. Green ran up the court and landed his triple challenge past Toussaint, who was off the mark as time expired.
WVU head coach Bob Huggins did not consider the fouling to prevent Auburn from attempting a triple.
“It never crossed my mind,” Huggins said. “Why foul? Especially their motor nerves, making the first one and flipping the second one behind. I think I’ll go overtime. I don’t want to risk losing.”
After struggling early in Wednesday’s victory over Texas Tech, West Virginia got off to a strong start against the Tigers.
An early 6-0 spurt featured baskets from Emmitt Matthews Jr., Stevenson and Tre Mitchell, allowing the Mountaineers to take a 10-3 lead.
Stevenson played the first tray at 7:15 to give WVU a 16-8 lead. Stevenson’s next three made him 23-12 past the halfway point and before halftime he connected again from long range at 4:39 to give the Mountaineers advantage. went 34-19.
On that shot, Stevenson had two defenders close to him and knocked them off before the shot clock ran out.
“I knew it would be the day it started,” Stevenson said.
Auburn narrowed the gap to 41-29 with Flanigan’s Outback dunk, but Okonkwo took the final four points of the half.
WVU shot 15-of-27 in the first half, forced nine turnovers, and had a 17-10 rebounding advantage.
But after going 11-27 in the first half, the Tigers pulled within 50-41 with Bloom’s bucket in the paint less than four minutes into the second half.
The Tigers were trailing 57-50 when Green got to the basket, but he was unable to finish a reverse layup and Jimmy Bell Jr. made a regular 3-point play on the other side to give the Mountaineers the lead. gave them a 10-point lead.
Auburn stole the next five points and fell five behind on a Bloom layup, but three from Stevenson and Toussaint put WVU ahead 66-58 with 8:25 remaining.
The Tigers then scored seven straight points before Bell turned inside to keep WVU in front with 4:43 remaining.
Stevenson shot 17-10 and scored a try 10-7. He also added 6 rebounds and grabbed 16 boards in his last two games.
“As he happily announced in the locker room after the game, his hiring was up to Auburn and us, so he made the right choice.
Bell finished with 15 points and 7 rebounds, making 5-of-7 shots and all 5 free throws.
“My coaches have told me that I feel better when I play with good bigs.” you have to do that.”
WVU made 19-of-20 free throws before making a mistake along the way so the Mountaineers finished 25-21 in the charity stripes.
Toussaint added nine points in the win, but shot 9-2. Matthews scored six and Mitchell only scored four, with seven points and three field goals in the last two games.
“Tre has carried us and matured since the beginning of the year,” Huggins said. “Today he wasn’t as good as he used to be, but he is. Fortunately, others have stepped up.”
The Tigers held a 21-13 late rebounding advantage to win the board battle 31-30.
Williams led four Auburn players with 18 points, while Bloom scored all 15 points after halftime and had a team-high seven rebounds. Flanigan scored 13 in the loss, but could only score three after halftime, with KD Johnson adding 10, nine of which were scored in the second half.
West Virginia improved to an all-time 3-7 in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge.
“You might be feeling a little bit of a wall on your back,” Stevenson said. It’s no surprise that he beat the team he was assigned to.