Sagaba Konate, Esa Ahmad lead West Virginia past Valparaiso
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Esa Ahmad and Sagaba Konate lit up in the second half and combined for 56 points to lift West Virginia over feisty Valparaiso, 88-76, on Saturday.
After starting the game with only two points, both coming from the foul line, Konate went off in the second half for the Mountaineers (3-2) with a career-high 26 points and five three-pointers, and he earned a double-double with 10 rebounds.
“Obviously in the first half, we (weren’t) ready to play at all,” Konate said. “The second half was a little bit better.”
Ahmad’s career-high 30 points led West Virginia as Valparaiso (3-3) kept the game competitive in the first half, even taking the lead with just over five minutes to play in the first half.
Lamont West added 11 points and six rebounds for the Mountaineers. Jermain Haley also grabbed six rebounds.
“We got beat by Western Kentucky because whoever got it, shot it,” WVU coach Bob Huggins said. “We can’t do that. We run some motion and some curls and things, and (Konate) stepped back and got his shoulders square. He’s worked really hard at that.”
Four Crusaders finished in double figures with Derrik Smits leading with 20 points and seven rebounds.
“We were going to make Konate hit shots and beat us, and he did that,” Valparaiso coach Matt Lottich said. “Bottom line, he did that. If he can shoot the ball like that, he presents a real problem for other teams.”
Ryan Fazekas finished with 15 points. Markus Golder added 13 points, and Bakari Evelyn scored 10.
Valparaiso have failed to close out second half leads in losses to Western Kentucky and Wake Forest. The Crusaders will need to improve its second half offense in order to compete in the Missouri Valley.
The Mountaineers have struggled with cold shooting snaps from the field in the first half against Buffalo, Monmouth, Western Kentucky and Valparaiso (two of those games ended up being losses). Consistent shooting is something that needs to be improved as WVU nears its heavy nonconference schedule with Florida, Pitt and Rhode Island ahead.
Redshirt freshman Brandon Knapper got his first career start and delivered for the Mountaineers, finishing with seven assists.
“We were counting on Knap more just because at the end of the year he got to play against Dax and JC in practice,” Huggins said. “So, you’d think he’s a little more used to what’s going to come at him than what Jordan would be, for instance, or what Jermaine would be.”
Speaking of tough schedules, Lottich alluded to the Crusaders’ difficult slate after the loss to West Virginia.
“I don’t think anyone in our conference has played the schedule that we had,” Lottich said. “Our three losses have come to three pretty good teams. We lost to Western Kentucky, who beat West Virginia, and we played them pretty tight. We lost to West Virginia, and we lost to Wake Forest, which is a game I thought we could’ve won.”
Konate’s second half provided a lot of excitement for the fans in Morgantown, but it came down to a run halfway through the second half.
After Smits hit a layup with 10 minutes, 19 seconds left to cut the Mountaineers lead to 63-61, Konate responded with a 3-pointer at the other end.
After a couple of empty possessions on both sides, Konate made a layup and drew a foul against Evelyn. He sank the free throw and WVU went up eight with 8:47 left. The Crusaders never recovered.