By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
It has not come easily for Dominique Rutledge this year.
You’d think, at 23, and having played for more basketball coaches than many NBA players play for in a career, Rutledge would have this game down, but it wasn’t the case when he came to West Virginia University coach Bob Huggins by way of a winding road, his last stop being at Western Texas College in Snyder, Texas, but he did not play there, sitting out a redshirt season.
He previously attended Miami Dade Junior College in 2009-10 and averaged 11.6 points and 8.5 rebounds per game. In 2008-09, he attended Hutchinson Community College in Hutchinson, Kansas, and averaged 8.9 points and 7.3 rebounds per game.
Then there Malcolm X Shabazz High in Newark, N.J., and prep school at Edison Job Corps Academy in Edison, N.J., where he averaged 15 points and 11 rebounds per game. Rutledge also played AAU basketball for Team New Jersey Elite and averaged 17 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and four blocks per game.
Former WVU star Da’Sean Butler, also from Newark, turned Huggins onto Rutledge, and you can only imagine how he drooled when he saw the body and innate ability, but the drool turned to frothing at the mouth when Rutledge spent most of this season at West Virginia not knowing enough of the offense or the defense to be trusted on the floor.
In truth, the only time early in the season he even gave a flash of what it was that Huggins had seen from him came in the Baylor game when he played 10 minutes and scored eight points, hitting three of four shots, pulled down four rebounds and blocked a couple of shots.
But take a look at Rutledge now, coming off his finest game of the season in what was the Mountaineers’ lowest point in the year, blowing a 10-point lead and losing in overtime to Connecticut to be eliminated from the Big East Tournament, leaving them sitting squarely on the bubble for the NCAAs.
Rutledge wound up playing a season-high 27 minutes, eight more than in any game all year … but you could see that coming considering that over the regular season’s final six games he played 19 minutes twice, 15 minutes another time and 10 yet another.
He was figuring things out and Huggins, seeing that, knew that he needed him, especially with Deniz Kilicli struggling badly at times.
“(About a month ago) the coaching staff pulled me to the side and told me they needed me,” Rutledge revealed in the quiet, sullen WVU locker room at Madison Square Garden. “They said going into the Big East Tournament they were going to need me in the rotation.”
About the same time some teammates came to him and stressed his importance to the team.
“They told me it was time to step it up,” he said. “I figured I’d try my best, work hard in practice and get there.”
And that he did, performing well enough to make them think that if they get that bid into the NCAAs and Kilicli can get his act together, they may be able to put together an awesome, physical front line with Rutledge, Kilicli and Kevin Jones.
In the last seven games of the season he was 12 of 26 shooting, hitting 46.2 percent, while grabbing 39 rebounds, which is almost 8 a game.
What’s more, he almost came up with the play of the year, making a nifty spin after a pump fake past his defender in the closing minute of play against UConn with the scored tied at 65-65.
Had he just gone up he probably would have had a dunk, but he wasn’t used to being the man making the big shot at the biggest moment for WVU.
“When I drove the baseline, I expected Truck (Bryant) to be open when I reverse-pivoted,” he said.
“By the time I reverse-pivoted and looked, there was help (defense) and I couldn’t get the ball out. I was trapped.”
He went up but the ball came loose and WVU could not get the winning basket, forcing overtime during which they lost the game.
It was one more time when the Mountaineers failed to execute down the stretch.
“We just couldn’t execute down the stretch. That’s been hurting us all year. We have to come together and execute,” Rutledge said.
You sense, Huggins senses, they are on the verge of being really good … that if they can sneak into the NCAA they could be a dark horse that is ready to finally not only build a lead, but hold it.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.