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Bob Herzel

December 15, 2013

Watkins, WVU come from behind late to down Marshall

MORGANTOWN — Brandon Watkins had become the odd man out for the West Virginia University Mountaineers, a freshman lost in the shuffle of a two-game losing streak. He’d played two minutes against Missouri and didn’t get off the bench against Gonzaga.

Who knew he’d be the man to save West Virginia in the Capital Classic against Marshall, maybe even save the season, as the Mountaineers overcame some dismal play and pulled out a 74-64 victory Saturday after trailing nearly the entire game in the Charleston Civic Center Coliseum.

“We wouldn’t have won without him,” WVU point guard Juwan Staten said. “He got thrown into the fire, and he stepped up.”

Nothing had been working for the Mountaineers until coach Bob Huggins called on his freshman out of desperation and he responded with a double-double, scoring 12 points and pulling down 11 rebounds.

Not bad for a kid who wasn’t in the best frame of mind.

“I was kind of down,” he said, moments after holding the trophy presented the game’s winner and being named the MVP of the game. “The last three games I wasn’t playing much. When I got in there I knew this was my chance.”

In truth, Watkins was simply suffering from freshmanitis, the kind of stuff most freshmen go through.

“It’s hard,” he admitted. “You learn along the way; each game you learn something new.”

And some games you teach a lesson or two, and Watkins taught them that he can be counted on, especially when Devin Williams and Kevin Noreen are struggling and when Eron Harris is having a tough time.

Harris, the high scorer on the season, scored only 11 points and made but one 3-point shot, that coming on the heels of being shut down in the second half of the Gonzaga game.

Staten, whose 3-point play gave WVU its first lead of the night with just 3:41 left, finished with 19 points, four assists and six rebounds but had an uncharacteristic five turnovers.

As Huggins left the court at halftime, he was stopped for a quick television interview.

His message to the public was, “We can’t play any worse. I don’t know what we’re doing. We’ve turned it over more than we have all season. We can’t make a shot. We can’t get a rebound. We were terrible.”

One suspects his message to his players was even more blunt than that.

But then again, as bad as West Virginia was, the scoreboard showed the Mountaineers were down just two points at 33-31, which might tell you something about the way Marshall played.

How bad was it?

It was so ugly that it even upstaged an ugly sweater contest put on by the media on press row.

It was so bad that even James Naismith got involved in the turnover fest, turning over in his grave.

It was so funny that you’d think Stephen Colbert was coaching one team and Jon Stewart the other.

Perhaps the best way to relate how WVU was trying to give the game away is to note that the Mountaineers were averaging 9 turnovers a game coming in.

At halftime they had committed 11, four of them from the normally immaculate Juwan Staten.

True, Staten had nine points, helping to keep WVU in a game in never led through the first half, but his overall performance was lacking.

In fact, WVU’s best player in the first half may well have been Watkins, who came off the bench to grab four rebounds and score a basket.

By comparison to everyone else, he looked like Michael Jordan as he earned himself a start in the second half.

WVU tied the game quickly coming out at halftime on a pair of free throws by Terry Henderson, the first time the game had been tied. Marshall’s biggest first-half lead had been 7 points.

The early minutes of the second half were continually punctured by shrill whistles, 12 fouls being called in the first four minutes. The 13th foul of the half, at the 15:12 mark, was on WVU’s Gary Browne as Kareem Canty scored, giving Marshall a 43-38 lead.

The WVU defense continued to be atrocious, so much so that Huggins erupted like Mount Etna, called a time out and stomped onto the court to meet his team, down by 47-41.

It made a difference.

The defense tightened and ever so slowly the Mountaineers chipped away at the lead until with 8 minutes left they found themselves down 54-53, had a couple of shots at taking their first lead but they would not fall.

WVU continued to cling to Marshall, wearing away at the Herd until Staten finally scored on a drive to the basket, drew a free throw and made it, putting WVU in front, 63-62.

And things were just starting to happen.

Ryan Taylor got himself fouled in the lane but lost his cool and threw an elbow at Remi Dibo, almost as if to get a message to Huggins that this rivalry can have its hot moments, too, just like Xavier and Cincinnati.

That foul took Taylor out of the game, Marshall making one of two free throws but Staten making two at the other end.

Heroic throughout, Watkins had some more magic in him, first scoring, then grabbing off an offensive rebound, passing it to Gary Browne, who canned a 17-footer. WVU had a 70-63 lead and Marshall was out of ammunition.

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel

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