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West Virginia’s rally falls short in 87-79 loss to Minutemen

The much-anticipated debut of RaeQuan Battle in a West Virginia uniform awaits.

Unfortunately for the Mountaineers, so, too, does the search for better and more consistent play after a second-half rally fell short Saturday in an 87-79 loss to Massachusetts in the Basketball Hall of Fame Classic at the Mass Mutual Center.

“I just told those guys in there we can’t wait to fight,” WVU interim head coach Josh Eilert said on postgame radio. “We have to fight from the jump. I know [Minutemen head coach Frank Martin] and knew his game plan was to be as physical as possible and make everything hard on us. It took way too long for us to bow up. I told them at halftime you better bow up or it’s going to be ugly.”

West Virginia (4-6) fell apart in the final 9 minutes of the first half after taking its second and final one-point lead of the game at 21-20 on Akok Akko’s jumper.

The Minutemen (6-2) followed with 10 unanswered points on consecutive field goals from Daniel Hankins-Sanford and two three-pointers from Robert Davis Jr., who countered a Kerr Kriisa triple with another trey of his own for a 33-24 advantage. 

Davis entered the matchup with eight threes on the season and finished 6 of 8 from long range Saturday.

Leading 38-26, UMass rattled off six straight points on two Matt Cross free throws, a Jayden Ndjigue layup and Hankins-Sanford’s jumper for its largest lead of the contest at 44-26, before Kriisa’s trey allowed WVU to trail by 15 at halftime.

Kriisa made his Mountaineer debut after serving a nine-game suspension to start the season, as did fellow WVU guard Noah Farrakhan following a preliminary injunction being agreed upon in the Ohio v. NCAA case that permits two-time transfers eligibility through the culmination of the 2023-24 athletics season.

Battle, thought to also be making his debut in a WVU uniform after gaining eligibility, instead missed the matchup with flu-like symptoms. He was ruled doubtful 30 minutes before tipoff.

“It’s unfortunate Rae was sick and battling that illness,” Eilert said. “If we didn’t have any luck, it’s all bad luck. We’re going to get there and keep on fighting.”

The Minutemen went to intermission with all 19 of the game’s fast break points.

Trailing 50-32, West Virginia began to charge back and used a 7-0 spurt to pull to within 11 with 16:10 remaining. Josiah Harris, who earlier Saturday walked in a a graduation ceremony in Morgantown, scored five points during that surge, though Davis countered with two triples in a 36-second stretch that left the Minutemen with a 56-41 lead.

Farrakhan’s triple at the 15:09 mark cut the deficit to 12, while Quinn Slazinski accounted for consecutive threes to turn a 10-point UMass lead into a 58-54 margin.

Kriisa added a triple moments later to bring WVU to within one, and the Mountaineers had a chance to go in front on their next possession, but Harris misfired from long range.

WVU, did however, pull even twice at 60 and 62 on a Seth Wilson trey and Akok dunk, the latter of which was answered by Josh Cohen’s layup with 6:20 remaining that put Massachusetts in front to stay.

Rashool Diggins’ triple with 5:05 to play left WVU facing a five-point deficit, though Harris and reserve Pat Suemnick scored from close range to trim the deficit to one.

The Mountaineers opted to bring center Jesse Edwards back into the game with just outside 3 minutes remaining after he’d sat for nearly 16 minutes, but Cohen sealed him in the post and converted a conventional three-point play for a 74-69 lead with 2:31 remaining.

Cohen added two free throws with 1:31 left and the Minutemen led by at least seven the rest of the way.

Edwards injured his wrist in the opening half on an alley-oop attempt. He had it taped throughout the second half and was limited to two points on 1-for-7 shooting in 16 minutes.

“I told the officials somebody is going to get hurt. I know how people play Jesse Edwards, because they know if he’s not in the game we can be crippled,” Eilert said. “They continued to fight and hack and he really hurt his wrist. Praying his wrist is OK and he’ll be OK for Wednesday [against Radford].”

The Minutemen entered one of the top rebounding teams in college basketball and lived up to that billing by dominating the boards, 47-32.

“From Day 1 this summer, I thought that was going to be a problem and it’s proven to be a problem night in and night out,” Eilert said of rebounding. “It’s on me. We’re going to work to continue to fix this.” 

Cohen led the way with 19 points, while Davis added 18 points on the six treys. Diggins scored 15 points and Cross finished with 13 points and 13 rebounds.

Kriisa and Slazinski tied for game-high scoring honors with 20 apiece. Kriisa made six field goals — all threes — and attempted 16 shots, all but one of which was from long range. Slazinski was limited to 6-for-19 shooting.

Farrakhan added 15 points on 7-for-11 shooting before fouling out, while Harris scored 10 to go with a team-high six rebounds.

UMass finished with a 34-15 advantage on fast break points and scored 25 points on 32 foul shots to WVU’s 9 for 12 effort on free throws.

“They’re 341st in free throws attempted allowed and they’re plus-20,” Eilert said. “ I didn’t like the way the game was called. I had to fight for our guys and that’s the way it ended up.”