It turns out Emmitt Matthews Jr.’s breakfast of choice is not Wheaties but rather Cocoa Puffs. Whatever it was he ate this morning it might be a good idea to repeat it when West Virginia plays again out in Kansas City in the Big 12 Tournament.
Today, Matthews shot and dunked his way to a team-high 18 points in leading the Mountaineers to an NCAA-Tournament-resume-boosting 76-64 victory over fourth-ranked Baylor in front of a sold-out crowd of 14,014 at the WVU Coliseum.
“I’ve got to score more ways,” Matthews said. “I hit a little bump in the road and tried to settle instead of expanding my game and obviously that didn’t work and I feel like I’m a whole other person when I’m playing at all three levels.”
He certainly was today, considering his 18 points were three more than he’s scored in his last six games. It was clearly his best effort since scoring 17 in a mid-November win up at Pittsburgh and only second to his career-high 28 points tallied against seventh-ranked Texas Tech to knock the Red Raiders out of last year’s Big 12 Tournament.
Today began with senior guard Chase Harler proposing to high school sweetheart Lindsey Baker during the team’s Senior Day ceremony, and ended with the WVU students storming the court to celebrate the Mountaineers’ most important victory of the season.
A week ago, when West Virginia was in the midst of its seven-game funk that saw the it drop six of seven, some of the more brilliant people on social media had the Mountaineers already dead and buried.
Now, they can go and throw dirt on Baylor, which at one time was ranked No. 1 in the country without a Big 12 loss but has since dropped three of its last five games heading into postseason play.
It’s a good thing Huggins doesn’t pay close attention to his Twitter feed the way he reads the local newspapers.
“I didn’t let them see the paper, which is the first one to give up on you every time something doesn’t go perfect,” he remarked. “We put them in a hotel and we went and gathered up all of the papers that they sit outside the door so they wouldn’t get discouraged.”
Baylor (26-4, 15-3) stormed out to an early 9-0 lead, requiring Huggins to use an early timeout to keep his team from getting even more discouraged.
He got some help from a very vocal and supportive home crowd, which helped the Mountaineers score the next 11 points to take an 11-9 lead.
“Kansas fans, when their team goes on a drought, they will start cheering and our fans did that (today),” Matthews said. “Our fans love us and obviously we’ve had a rough last month and we just want to give them what they deserve.”
Sophomore Derek Culver got West Virginia’s first field goal to go down nearly seven minutes into the game, but it was Matthews’ aggressive play going to the rim and stepping back to knock down contested jump shots that really got the Mountaineers going.
His first made 3 in almost a month tied the game at 9, and another one four minutes later gave West Virginia a five-point lead.
“I don’t think I’ve ever made a step-back 3 – and I shot three of them!” Matthews laughed.
A Miles McBride 3 with 1:56 left put West Virginia’s advantage at seven, but some misfortune right before intermission allowed Baylor to cut it to two.
Trail official Darron George wasn’t able to cover the length of the floor to get a clear look at whether or not Baylor’s Freddie Gillespie stepped out of bounds trying to retrieve a wayward pass, and the Bears eventually got three points out of the possession when Macio Teague was fouled by McBride while scoring.
Teague added another jumper right before the end of the half to reduced West Virginia’s lead to two, 24-22.
It appeared Baylor was getting control of the game midway through the second half when Devonte Bandoo’s layup put them ahead 37-30, but Matthews responded with a pretty baseline dunk that got the crowd back into the game.
Flo Thamba fouled Matthews on his dunk attempt and his free throw trimmed the Baylor lead to four. The next time down the floor Matthews added another basket and an Oscar Tshiebwe layup with 8:59 left put the Mountaineers back in the lead, 43-42.
Another Matthews base line slam two minutes later moved the lead to three, requiring Baylor coach Scott Drew to call a 30-second timeout with 7:08 left. Guard Sean McNeil added to the lead with a running one-hander and Jermaine Haley hit a short jumper to cap an 8-0 run.
Tshiebwe’s gorgeous left-handed slam came shortly before McBride’s play of the game when he threw down a vicious one-handed dunk overtop of Gillespie in transition to give West Virginia an 11-point lead.
“He plays with so much emotion he almost yelled his brains out and I was doing the same thing yelling at him,” Matthews said. “It was like a big bro, little bro moment. You are happy to see him make plays like that.”
Baylor, which opted to foul Culver whenever he got the ball close to the basket and take their chances with him on the free throw line, eventually ran out of bigs when Thamba and Gillespie fouled out.
At the end of the game, Baylor’s tallest player on the floor was 6-5 Mark Vital, who also fouled out with 50 seconds left.
West Virginia, which made 22 of 24 free throws at one point, finished 24-of-34 from the line with six of those misses coming from Culver.
The two freshmen, Tshiebwe and McBride, were a combined 11-of-13 from the foul line in the second half and were once again responsible for West Virginia’s late surge just as they did out at Iowa State earlier this week.
Tshiebwe produced 16 points and 12 rebounds while McBride finished with 12 points, four steals, two assists and a pair of rebounds.
“It’s rare when they play bad now,” Matthews said. “They’re among the hardest workers on the team and they don’t leave the gym.”
McNeil came off the bench to contribute 11 while Haley scored all 9 of his points in the second half.
Jared Butler led Baylor with a game-high 21. Davion Mitched added 15.
West Virginia shot 57.6 percent in the second half to finish the game at 46.2 percent (24 of 52). Baylor shot 42.4 percent (25 of 59) but was just 4-of-18 from 3 for 22.2 percent.
WVU had an impressive 42 to 28 advantage on the glass for the game.
“We blew a lead at Iowa State and was able to come back and we lost a lead today and came back, so I think that shows some toughness … that, and not reading the paper,” Huggins said.
Today’s win boosts West Virginia’s overall record to 21-10 and assures it of at least a six-place finish in the conference standings at 9-9. Kansas held off Texas Tech earlier today to win the regular season title while Baylor finishes second at 15-3. Spots three through seven have yet to be determined.
“We didn’t want to go out there and play on that first day,” Matthews said. “We handled business the way we needed to handle business today and now we’re ready to go out to Kansas City.
Oklahoma State-Texas and Oklahoma-TCU wrap up regular season play later today. Before today’s action, Joe Lunardi’s ESPN Bracketology had West Virginia slotted as an eight-seed, but that will likely change.