MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Wellington Smith consistently found himself in an unusual spot — wide open outside the 3-point arc with the green light to shoot.
Smith scored 17 of his career-high 19 points in the second half and No. 6 West Virginia used a huge rebounding edge to beat No. 15 Mississippi 76-66 on Wednesday night.
Facing a ranked opponent for the first time this season, West Virginia (9-0) shot 60 percent (18 of 30) from the field after halftime and frustrated one of the nation’s top offenses. Mississippi (10-2) was held to its lowest point total of the season and saw its six-game winning streak snapped.
Smith, West Virginia’s most reliable shot blocker who had five 3-pointers entering the game, buried four long shots early in the second half to break open a close game.
“I really didn’t think that I was in a groove or anything,” said Smith, whose previous career high was 14 points against Rutgers in February 2008. “I just kept shooting open shots. This is my best game so far and I’m going to try to build on it and keep it rolling and hopefully keep this streak going.”
Devin Ebanks added 14 points and 13 rebounds and Kevin Jones had 12 points for West Virginia, which is off to its best start since the 2004-05 team started 10-0 under a much softer schedule.
West Virginia had a successful start to a tough stretch that includes its Big East opener Saturday at Seton Hall, another league game next Tuesday against Marquette and a showdown at No. 4 Purdue on Jan. 1.
West Virginia improved significantly on defense from its last game, when the Mountaineers nearly blew a 17-point lead and needed a layup by Da’Sean Butler with 1.2 seconds left to win 80-78 at Cleveland State.
“Defensively, that’s more like us,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said. “We were atrocious on Saturday. We watched a lot of tape, and I think the message got across.”
West Virginia went ahead to stay midway through the first half, outrebounded Mississippi 52-33 and made 7 of 10 3-pointers after halftime.
“I didn’t think that we came out terribly focused,” Mississippi coach Andy Kennedy said. “They hit us in the mouth and we didn’t respond. As a result, we’re going home a loser.”
Zach Graham led the Rebels with 14 points, while Eniel Polynice and Murphy Holloway had 13 apiece and Chris Warren added 10 — eight below his team-leading average.
Both of Mississippi’s losses have come to Big East opponents. The Rebels fell to No. 8 Villanova 79-67 in the championship game of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off on Nov. 22.
Smith made four 3-pointers from the right side of the key in the first 4 minutes of the second half. And when Mississippi’s defense moved to the perimeter, John Flowers made an easy layup to put the Mountaineers ahead 48-36 with 14:01 left.
“Wells shot it well,” Huggins said. “He shoots well when he’s on balance. I told him if he could step into it, to shoot. If he couldn’t step into it, don’t shoot it.”
Mississippi, with five players averaging double figures, kept the game from becoming a rout by hitting eight straight inside baskets. Holloway made a three-point play and a layup to bring the Rebels within 49-43 with 11:47 left.
West Virginia’s defense altered numerous Mississippi shots inside after that and the Rebels got no closer. Smith made another 3-pointer and the Mountaineers steadily pulled away, taking their largest lead, 65-51, on a layup by Ebanks with 7:20 remaining.
Kennedy was an assistant coach and recruiting coordinator under Huggins at Cincinnati, and Kennedy became interim head coach when Huggins was forced to resign in August 2005. Kennedy was passed over for the Bearcats’ permanent job and was hired at Mississippi in 2006.
West Virginia won by two points last season in Oxford, Miss., and the coaches spent time getting reacquainted in the 24 hours leading up to this meeting. It appeared early on that they knew each other’s tendencies because nothing seemed to work offensively for either team.
Butler, West Virginia’s leading scorer, went to the bench with his second foul midway through the first half and tied a season low with nine points. But his lack of scoring wasn’t too noticeable. West Virginia went ahead to stay on a layup by Darryl Bryant with 10:50 left.
West Virginia made up for 32 percent shooting (11 of 34) in the first half by outrebounding Mississippi 31-14 to lead 29-26.
“They destroyed us on the glass,” Kennedy said. “We compounded our inability to rebound with our inability to make an open shot at an embarrassing level and that is a recipe for disaster.”
John Raby/The Associated Press