The Times West Virginian

March 2, 2014

Connor ignites WVU to 81-59 win

By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian

MORGANTOWN — As you look down the roster of Bob Huggins’ West Virginia University men’s basketball team, you see an international recruiting net.

You come across Remi Dibo of Montreuil, France; Gary Browne of Cupey, Puerto Rico; Kevin Noreen from the cold country of Minneapolis, Brandon Watkins from down south in Decatur, Ga., a host of Midwestern recruits such as Juwan Staten from Dayton, Ohio; Eron Harris of Indianapolis and Devin Williams from Cincinnati.

But if West Virginia qualifies for the NCAA Tournament this year the historians will have to take note that beating hapless and hopeless TCU, 81-59, in a home game West Virginia could not lose became a reality because a couple of freshmen from no further than 180 miles away came through.

One of them, Nathan Adrian, is almost from within walking distance of the Coliseum, having played and earned a scholarship at the hometown Morgantown High School.

The other is from maybe 180 miles due south, a product of Shady Spring High in West Virginia by the name of Chase Connor, and it didn’t take anything more than an invitation to walk on to get him to come to the state university.

Now Adrian’s production in this game was expected. Even though he’s a freshman, he has become a starter, has impressed Huggins with his defensive play, shown an ability to hit some 3s and shown promise of becoming a solid offensive rebounder, snagging five of them as he scored 14 points.

But Connor?

Talk about coming out of nowhere, Chase Connor’s scoring average was lower than the midnight temperature during this cold spell we’ve been having, standing at a fat, round 0.0. He had played only 25 minutes in nine games this year, shooting the ball five times, making as many baskets as Jay Jacobs has made this year from his seat behind the radio microphone.

But with Terry Henderson missing his third straight game with an unspecified illness, Huggins was looking for someone to give the offense a boost and Connor, even if he had shown nothing to date when called on, had a history of putting the basketball in the basket.

He had led the state of West Virginia in scoring the two previous high school seasons, averaging 27 points a game as senior and 28.3 as a junior.

“When Terry went down, Coach told me to be ready, he could call my name at any time, to be ready, be relaxed and don’t panic,” Connor recalled.

That’s a tall order for anyone who isn’t playing regularly, but for Connor it was more so. The kid had not shot the ball in a game since missing one against Loyola on Dec. 2 and had played a grand total of six minutes in the two months since then.

But Connor got himself ready.

“I focused all week in practice to make sure I was ready if he called my name,” he said.

His teammates had confidence in him.

“Chase hasn’t really made shots for us this year but he shoots the ball great in practice every day and today, when his number was called, he knocked shots down,” said guard Juwan Staten. “We’re very proud of him. We definitely was going to be looking for him once we saw him knock shots down.”

Now normally you expect a player like Connor to be used in garbage time, but this was anything but.

In truth, he may have changed the game.

West Virginia wasn’t playing well early against a team that was 0-15 in Big 12 play coming into the game.

“We came out a little sluggish. I don’t really know what it was but our intensity level wasn’t as high as it needs to be for as high as the stakes were on this game,” Staten said.

They trailed 13-7 after a turnover by Gary Browne and who knows what might have happened had TCU gotten some momentum, but that’s when Huggins put Connor into the game.

Boom! He hit his first 3.

Boom! He hit his second 3.

Boom! He hit his third 3.

The crowd of 11,358 was going bonkers.

“Give that kid a scholarship,” shouted one of them.

He didn’t want a scholarship at that moment. All he wanted was the ball.

“After the second one is when I was thinking I’ve got to get myself open here. I was thinking maybe something could happen today,” he said.

 It did. His ninth straight point gave WVU a 16-15 lead.

“Any time a walk-on scores it is energy building for us, it’s confidence building for us. It says we got some depth,” Eron Harris said of the boost the Mountaineers got.

Now we’re not naïve enough to believe Connor changed history, for WVU was probably going to win this game anyway, but it gave a nice twist to a season going strangely bad with three straight losses and WVU trailing again at that point.

It also put an emphasis on what can be right about college basketball, about the walk-on dong good, about the state kid who turns down lower-level scholarships to play at the state school having his moment in the sun.

Why, you wonder, was Chase Connor at WVU?

“I just felt right. Once it became an option, I felt it was what I needed to do,” he said.

And did he ever question the decision during the long moments of sitting on the bench while others played?

“No, I always felt at home here and felt this was the right decision,” he answered.

And finally, to do it in a game when Adrian stepped up, that meant even more for the two were on the same All-State high school team and while not teammates they played AAU ball together.

NOTES: Freshman Devin Williams had his sixth double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds … Eron Harris led WVU in scoring with 18 points, Juwan Staten had 17 with five assists and only one turnover … Terry Henderson was on the bench but not in uniform and there is no timetable for his return.

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel