MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) — Erik Stevenson kept putting pressure on himself to shoot better as West Virginia struggled against one ranked team after another.
His time finally came Saturday.
Stevenson scored a career-high 31 points and the Mountaineers withstood a late rally from No. 15 Auburn to beat the Tigers 80-77 in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge.
Stevenson made 10 of 17 shots, including seven 3-pointers. In his previous six games. he shot 18 of 67 (27%) from the floor, including 5 of 34 (15%) from beyond the arc.
Stevenson, a graduate transfer from South Carolina who is West Virginia’s leading scorer at 13.1 points per game, said it felt like he was “shooting the ball in the ocean” on Saturday.
“It’s been a long two, three weeks,” he said, his voice cracking with emotion. “I’ve been shooting the ball well in practice. I’ve had good mental days. Then come game time, it hasn’t been dropping for me. It’s really been taking a toll on me. It’s my job to help the team in any way I can. They rely on me to score, and if I’m not scoring, it’s hurting the team. It’s really been hurting me, to be honest.”
Stevenson’s turnovers and defensive mistakes have at times landed him a seat on the bench near coach Bob Huggins. A few weeks ago, Huggins said he and Stevenson have a relationship where “I know he’s a little crazy, and he knows I might be crazier.” But Huggins said the player has become “more coachable.”
Stevenson topped his previous high of 29 points in January 2020 against another SEC team, Mississippi, when he was with Wichita State.
“It was a matter of time,” Huggins said Saturday. “He’s put time in. He’s really worked at his mechanics.”
The Mountaineers (13-8) have won two straight for the first time in a month and now head into the teeth of the Big 12 schedule that determines an NCAA Tournament berth.
With Charles Barkley cheering on his alma mater from a courtside seat, Auburn (16-5) couldn’t overcome another slow start. The Tigers never led in the game and have lost two straight for the first time in two years.
“We didn’t get off to a great start, and obviously that hurt us,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. “That was a real prize that we missed.”
Stevenson had 18 first-half points on 6 of 9 shooting, including three 3-pointers that staked the Mountaineers to a 45-29 halftime lead.
Auburn’s two top scorers, Wendell Green Jr. and Johni Broome, were limited to a combined three points in the first half. They led a charge after the break and Auburn trimmed the deficit to 66-65 on Broome’s layup with 5:16 left.
But the Tigers never went ahead. Broome’s layup with 7.6 seconds left trimmed Auburn’s deficit to 79-77. Stevenson then capped the scoring by making one of two free throws. Green’s potential tying 3-pointer at the buzzer was short.
Jimmy Bell Jr. added 15 points for the Mountaineers.
Jaylin Williams led Auburn with 18 points. Broome added 15 and Allen Flanigan scored 13.
Auburn will make a significant drop but could stay in the AP Top 25.
Barkley was the special guest at Huggins’ sold-out charity fish fry on Friday night. The annual event benefits an endowment named for Huggins’ late mother at the university’s Cancer Institute, as well as providing scholarships for mining engineering students at WVU. Past guests have included coaches John Calipari of Kentucky and Bill Self of Kansas.
Auburn: The Tigers will need to regroup with key matchups looming in the next two weeks against No. 4 Tennessee and No. 2 Alabama, wrapped around rematches against teams that have already beaten them — Georgia and Texas A&M.
West Virginia: The schedule doesn’t get any easier for the Mountaineers either, with seven games against ranked foes over the final 11 regular-season contests.
Auburn: Hosts Georgia on Wednesday.
West Virginia: Travels to No. 11 TCU on Tuesday.