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West Virginia shows respect for first-round foe Murray State

By Allan Taylor, The Sports Xchange
West Virginia shows respect for first-round foe Murray State
Coach Bob Huggins and West Virginia face Murray State in the first round of the NCAA tournament Friday. File photo by Monika Graff/UPI | License Photo

SAN DIEGO -- West Virginia's seniors understand the survive-and-advance pressure of NCAA Tournament first-round games. Recent history has been quite a teacher.

As freshmen, Jevon Carter and Daxter Miles were key parts of a fifth-seeded team that eked past Buffalo 68-62 in the opener. In 2016, they experienced the wrath of 14th-seeded Stephen F. Austin dominating the third-seeded Mountaineers 70-56.

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Then last season, as a No. 4 seed, West Virginia held off Bucknell 86-80.

Now comes a 5-vs.-12 matchup Friday against Murray State.

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Murray State (26-5) is the champion of the Ohio Valley Conference. The Racers currently own the nation's longest winning streak at 13 games.

"They're really good," said West Virginia coach Bob Huggins, who will be coaching in his 24th NCAA Tournament.

Having taken two teams to the Final Four -- Cincinnati in 1992 and West Virginia in 2010 -- Huggins knows this version of the Mountaineers (24-10) could make a run to San Antonio if it plays to its potential. After all, WVU beat top-seeded Virginia in December and built sizable second-half leads in three games against another No. 1 seed, Kansas, only to lose all three.

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Carter has played a role in 103 wins, just four shy of Da'Sean Butler's school record, and the two-time Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year has stepped up his offensive output this season, averaging 17.2 points and 6.6 assists per game.

Miles broke out of a season-long shooting slump recently by averaging 22 points at the Big 12 Tournament when he made 15 of 27 from 3-point range over three games. At 13 points per game, Miles is part of a balanced lineup in which various players can emerge as secondary scorers on any given night.

Center Sagaba Konate (10.8 points, 7.6 rebounds) has made strides as a low-post threat, while Lamont West (9.5 points) and James Bolden (8.9 points) can fill it up from 3. Forward Esa Ahmad (10.1 points., 5.3 rebounds) has been very good or invisible with not many performances in between.

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Murray State is enjoying its third-highest seed ever in 15 NCAA appearances. The Racers are in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012 and have won their last two opening-round games with wins over Colorado State and Vanderbilt in 2010.

"The way our guys were able to finish the season, and having double-digit road wins, I was pleased to see our players get that kind of respect," Racers coach Matt McMahon said. "It's been a lot of fun getting to this point."

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Leading the way is one of the country's best mid-major players, senior guard Jonathan Stark, who averages 21.8 per game and recorded four 30-point games. Stark shoots 41 percent from 3-point range and 88 percent at the foul line.

"He's a good dude," said Bolden, who teamed with Stark on last summer's tour of Spain. "He's a crafty player and he can score at all levels of the court. Can shoot the 3, he can drive to get his players open shots and he can finish crazy shots at the rim."

Then Bolden added: "He's kind of like Trae Young, a shorter version of him."

Murray State also features dynamic small forward Terrell Miller (14.7 points, 8.3 rebounds) and underrated freshman point guard Temetrius Morant (12.6 points, 6.6 rebounds, 6.4 assists).

"Morant is a high-level point guard," Huggins said. "He's really good in transition, and probably as good at driving and finishing around the rim as anyone we've played."

West Virginia is 10-8 against teams in the NCAA field, while Murray State is 0-1 with an 81-77 loss to Auburn on Dec. 19.

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