MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Ever since West Virginia coach Bob Huggins suspended forward Aaric Murray for one game, the Mountaineers junior has dominated consecutive opponents.
The latest was Radford, as Murray scored 23 points, a career high in a West Virginia uniform, and the Mountaineers (6-5) defeated the Highlanders 72-62 Saturday for their second straight nonconference victory.
“We all know he is a talented kid,” Huggins said. “I think he’s learning how to play harder for a longer period of time. Honest to God, he’s been coachable since we got back from (the) Michigan (game). He’s trying to do what we ask him to do.”
The 6-foot-10 junior, who transferred from La Salle, also had eight rebounds, four assists and three steals for his second solid outing in a row since missing West Virginia’s 81-66 loss to No. 3 Michigan on Dec. 15 because of disciplinary reasons.
Since then, Murray has tallied 35 points, 18 rebounds, eight assists and six blocks. The Radford game was his third in double figures out of the last four and sixth overall. The week before his suspension, he was named the Big 12 Rookie of the Week.
“I just played hard and the buckets seemed to fall,” Murray said. “I was looking to play harder in this game. I’m looking to play harder in every game.”
At La Salle, where Murray played two years before sitting out the 2011-12 season because of NCAA rules, his career high was 28 points.
No other Mountaineers scored in double figures, though Dominique Rutledge came off the bench to contribute eight rebounds in 22 minutes.
Javonte Green had 17 points and 10 rebounds for Radford (5-7), which has lost four straight. Blake Smith chipped in 13 points and five rebounds. The Highlanders are 0-5 against West Virginia.
Radford coach Mike Jones was an assistant at West Virginia in 2002-03.
The Highlanders were playing without leading scorer R.J. Price (13.1 points per game), who sat out the contest with a sprained ankle.
“We knew that it was going to be a big challenge for us,” said Jones. “At the end of the day, it was too much Aaric Murray inside. He really got the ball deep and caused us problems late getting to the free-throw line and scoring deep.”
The Mountaineers’ 1-3-1 zone defense forced five straight turnovers in the second half, which West Virginia turned into seven consecutive points.
“I thought we did a good job with the 1-3-1 until the end,” Huggins said. “We stayed in our lanes for the most part. We were making pretty good drops, but then we didn’t make any drops. The 1-3-1 was just pretty effective.”
The two teams exchanged one-point leads six straight times, with Mountaineers reserve guard Gary Browne swishing a pair of free throws for a 50-49 edge with 8:52 to go.
Immediately, West Virginia coach Bob Huggins, whose program won for the 45th time at home against the last 46 nonconference opponents, implemented the trapping zone. His Mountaineers ran their lead from one to eight points with 6:23 showing.
West Virginia senior Deniz Kilicli and Browne trapped the ball in the back court, then Kilicli hit a streaking Browne with a perfect lead pass. Browne turned it into a three-point play. West Virginia forced a travel out of Rashun Davis, and Murray muscled up for a layup at the other end of the court.
After Green threw the ball out of bounds, Kilicli contributed a free throw. Finally, Murray, hustling all over the floor, made a steal which teammate Keaton Miles turned into another foul shot.
“We had a lot of freshmen out there playing,” said Jones. “We saw the 1-3-1 earlier against Eastern Kentucky and UNC-Charlotte, but WVU’s 1-3-1 is bigger and a little bit more aggressive. Initially, it threw us off. We didn’t attack it. It allowed them to stretch their lead out. Once we got composed, we were able to get a couple shots.”
The defensive show got the West Virginia faithful buzzing for the first time in a game that included 31 turnovers and 47 personal fouls.
The seven-point spell actually was part of a 24-13 streak the Mountaineers put on the Highlanders in the last 9:11. During that span, a Radford team that seemed to wear down in the face of a bigger, stronger home squad, knocked down just four baskets.
“Maybe the guys who played a lot of minutes got a little tired,” said Jones. “I do think that we made mental errors because we got fatigued, particularly between the nine-minute mark and the six-minute mark in the second half, but I don’t think that was the main factor.”
Radford once held a three-point lead and the game was tied with 4:10 remaining in the first half when Murray contributed eight of nine West Virginia points to just one basket for the Highlanders to put his club ahead by four.
In the second half, the Mountaineers advanced the lead to 37-29 within the first three minutes.
However, Radford answered with a three-point play by Davis, a 3-point shot by Kyle Noreen, a subsequent steal and layup by Noreen and a three-point play by Jalen Carethers to push the Highlanders ahead 40-39 with 15:12 to go.
Immediately, West Virginia’s Browne responded with a layup to give the Mountaineers a 41-40 lead they would not relinquish after Huggins’ trapping defense went to work.
Radford’s Noreen and West Virginia reserve Kevin Noreen are brothers who played high school basketball in Minneapolis.