By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
To be totally honest, as this uncertain West Virginia University basketball season began to unwind and coach Bob Huggins continued to offer nothing but a positive outlook upon something that looked more and more like a negative situation, you wondered what he knew that no one else did.
His team hadn’t really displayed anything that looked hopeful. It’s most visible player, Deniz Kilicli, was struggling. The offense was as uncertain as the rotation, Huggins seemingly feeling his way like a movie goer trying to find a seat after just walking into a darkened theater.
Aaric Murray and Juwan Staten, the two transfers who were supposed to make an immediate impact, had been neither fish nor fowl, trying to find their niche both on the offensive and defensive ends.
The team played hard, of that there was no doubt, but when they shot the basketball it went spinning off in crazy directions, seldom toward the rim at which they were aiming.
But if life teaches you anything, it is that success breeds success and there is no substitute for experience, so it seemed to be pure folly to doubt Huggins when he said his team would come together and become a force.
It well could be that is the result of what transpired in the Charleston Civic Center Coliseum on Wednesday night, when the Mountaineers discovered themselves in a 69-59 victory over in-state rival Marshall.
“We came together as a family,” is the way senior Deniz Kilicli explained it. “That is important. Ugly stuff happened. There were times we couldn’t score, but we kept executing. We kept playing through plays. It’s a rivalry game, and players were able to play through their emotions.”
This game, hotly contested and one that nearly erupted into a brawl in its closing minutes, points toward being the turning point in the season for the Mountaineers, the game in which they found a spark, a reason for the long hours on the treadmill and for enduring the language that flowed so freely from Huggins’ mouth during practice.
The West Virginia players came out of the game feeling differently about themselves and their season than they had at any time earlier in the season in the wake of an opening-day disaster at Gonzaga and maybe even a bigger flop at the Old Spice Classic when they lost a pair of games without providing much in the way of competition.
This time they had faced a challenge, played the kind of basketball they are going to have to play by hammering on the inside, which negated the fact they still can’t shoot, and claimed not only the victory but an identity.
“We came together and said, ‘You know what, we’re not losing this game,’” Kilicli said. “They tried everything. They tried playing hard. They tried shooting the ball well, and they couldn’t. They tried talking trash, and that didn’t work either.”
No, West Virginia kept hammering away at them despite the inability to hit shots from outside. This, it must be recalled, is a team that had recorded a 3-point goal in 428 consecutive games, but it wasn’t until 31 minutes and 17 seconds had expired in the game before Jabarie Hinds hit the first — and only — 3-point shot of the game.
What made it so interesting was the WVU wasn’t even launching 3s, taking just six all evening.
That is quite a difference from the team that threw up 26 3s in the opener against Gonzaga — and made 3 of them.
And the assist on Hinds’ 3, one of only eight assists WVU would have in the game, came from Kilicli, who again gave a hint of how this team is learning where to go and what to do on the court each day in explaining how it came about.
“Huggs always says, ‘Go to the middle and good things happen.’ We try to keep people out of the middle. I thought, ‘All right, I’m going to try to go to the middle and see what happens.’ Something good happened,” he said.
The timing of these revelations could not be better, for WVU already has three losses and is unranked and needs to show a lot of improvement before it gets into conference play if it is to put together a 20-victory season and qualify for the NCAAs.
The schedule turns tough here, beginning Saturday when unbeaten Virginia Tech, a longtime rival who figures to be a regular on the schedule from here on out, comes to the Coliseum with its high-scoring game and then, after Duquesne on the road Tuesday, WVU plays the highlight game of the season.
The Mountaineers travel to Brooklyn, N.Y., next Saturday to play in the new arena there against one of their most popular and successful coaches in John Beilein, who brought them the Pittsnogle-Gansey-Ruoff teams.
He is unbeaten and ranked third in the nation at Michigan now and a victory there would be a huge win on the Mountaineers’ postseason resume.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.