West Virginia beat Wichita State, 75-63, to win the 2019 Cancun Challenge championship Wednesday night. That’s the trees.
Here’s the forest: If this is the version of Bob Huggins squad we’re going to see for most of the remainder of the season, the Mountaineers are back from their one-season nightmare.
After a semifinals, 60-55, come-from-behind win over Northern Iowa on Tuesday night that could be described, charitably, as a slog, West Virginia (6-0) put on its best performance of the young season in Wednesday night’s championship game. The Mountaineers came out fast and strong, with a spring in their step that was missing the night before. They had a team-wide defensive intensity that suffocated the Shockers through most of the night. WVU’s front line owned the glass. The Mountaineers forced turnovers. They sped up Wichita State and the Shockers were visibly uncomfortable on the offensive end all night.
It wasn’t exactly vintage Press Virginia, as the full-court press of the past is employed more sporadically than during the Jevon Carter-Daxter Miles era. But it was vintage Huggins defense. Tough. Relentless. Physical. Rebounding. Rebounding. And more rebounding.
A night after an invisible effort worthy of the Witness Protection Program, freshman Oscar Tshiewbe displayed the kind of domination expected of his five-star pedigree. Tshiewbe was the best player on the floor in the finals. That wasn’t disputable. Tshiewbe finished with his third double-double in six career contests, leading the Mountaineers with 19 points and tying a Cancun Challenge rebounding record with 18 boards.
When he is on his game, Tshiewbe is West Virginia’s best player. He was able to tally those dominating numbers despite finishing with four personal fouls – again. Tshiewbe has a chance to be the Big 12 newcomer of the year. He has a chance to earn all-conference first-team honors. He is just that good. His combination of size, strength, quickness, hops, smooth feet and soft hands haven’t been seen by a big man in Morgantown since…ever.
He probably won’t be a Mountaineer long. But he has a chance to be special in the time he does have. But he has to become more consistent and learn to better avoid picking up fouls. He’s young. This should improve as the season goes on. Should.
This was the best combination effort with the Mountaineers version of the twin towers – Tshiewbe and sophomore forward Derek Culver. Before Wednesday night, either Tshiewbe or Culver carried the Mountaineers front-line effort alone. Culver added seven points, nine rebounds and two blocks Wednesday. If WVU is going to return to the NCAA Tournament and be a factor in the Big 12, this kind of combined effort has to be the rule – not the exception.
Another positive sign for WVU was Huggins decision to play sophomore point guard Jordan McCabe much of the second half and all of crunch time. While Tshiewbe was persona non grata some of the time, McCabe has been all year. Wednesday night was McCabe’s sixth start, but his first meaningful contribution.
McCabe’s numbers weren’t spectacular – nine points and just two assists. But Huggins relied on McCabe to handle the defensive pressure the Shockers tried to apply in an effort to get back into the game. This is what McCabe does best. He was brilliant at it Wednesday night.
During the Carter run at WVU, the one area the Mountaineers struggled was handling the opponent’s press. It led to numerous blown big leads late in games. For all that Carter did well, he wasn’t a good ball handler for a point guard.
McCabe is. WVU needs him on the floor more than he’s off it. Especially for this exact situation. His ability to beat the press is going to be needed again.
WVU is a young team that is trying to find itself. The journey didn’t end in Mexico Wednesday night. But it took a big step forward.