The Times West Virginian

February 22, 2014

Mountaineers set to battle Baylor

By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — It has been almost a month since West Virginia University went to Baylor and stunned the Bears to turn its season around.

You might remember the game, for it came at a time when WVU’s season was falling to pieces, its record at the time standing at 11-9 with losses in three of their last four games, the last one a disheartening 6-point defeat at Oklahoma State.

A loss to Baylor, especially in the taut game that had developed, might have pulled the curtain on 2013-14 for the Mountaineers.

But, in the end, it became the game in which point guard Juwan Staten put his stamp on this team, making an acrobatic, reverse layup with just 3 seconds to play to give WVU a 66-64 victory, injecting life into what well could have been the Mountaineers corpse.

WVU went on to win four of five games to put themselves on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament before a crushing 88-71 loss at  Texas exposed their weaknesses inside and left again gasping for post-season breath.

And who should be coming to their house offering a season-saving respirator at 1:30 p.m. today but Baylor, although it is not the same Baylor Bears they faced the first time.

The game will be televised on WVFX-Clarksburg.

Baylor had opened the season 12-1 and climbed to as high as No. 7 in the country before its sparkplug guard, Kenny Cherry, was injured, and the Bears came undone. WVU’s victory over them was their fifth straight loss among a streak of games when they would lose eight of 10.

Like WVU, which turned around with the Baylor victory and won four of the next six, the Bears also had their own turnaround and now are in the midst of a three-game win streak which includes winning the last two in overtime. They come into the WVU game off an incredible OT victory over Oklahoma State in which they led by 3 points with the ball and just three seconds left only to have the inbounds pass stolen and a tying 3 dropped on them.

Somehow, despite that disaster, they turned around and dominated the overtime period to win the game.

Now they meet WVU in a game that is a must-win encounter for both sides.

“We’ve only got five games left,” said Staten, who this past week was named a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award as college basketball’s best point guard. “We know that we definitely have to get the ones at home in order to have a shot.”

His backcourt running mate put it even more bluntly.

“Every game is a must-win—it’s tournament time now,” Eron Harris said.

Baylor feels it is in the same position as WVU.

“Hopefully in another week or two it will be true we turned it around,” coach Scott Drew said. “We need to win a bunch of games. Any time you win, it helps your confidence. The players are in a better mood and coaches are more excited.

“In this conference the great thing is every game you have a chance for a quality win.”

Like most teams, Baylor will rely a lot on its big men against WVU, especially after seeing what Texas did inside. That is something they did not do the first time, Royce O’Neale, Cory Jefferson and Isaiah Austin combining for just 14 shots taken, 14 points and 11 rebounds.

They don’t play like that any longer, Jefferson coming off a game against Oklahoma State where he scored 25 points with 13 rebounds and three blocks and having consecutive double-doubles, while in the last four games Austin is averaging 16.3 points, 7.3 rebound and is shooting 52.2 percent … also blocking 18 shots in just the last three games.

Huggins, however, believes the key to the Baylor success lies in Cherry, who had 10 points and four assists in the first game.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt (that he holds the key),” Huggins said. “He had them going, then got hurt and didn’t play quite as well for a stretch. Now he’s playing well, and when he’s playing well they are really good.”

His ability to play well has made life easier for the big men inside, according to Huggins.

“When Kenny Cherry plays you can’t lay off and help on them, so they can get isolated. All three of those guys are talented guys,” the coach said. “When Cherry plays really well, it takes some of the focus off the bigs.”

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.