By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
There was a moment in the first half of what would become West Virginia’s 74-67 victory over Eastern Kentucky on Sunday afternoon before 8,123 fans trying to find a diversion after Saturday’s Pinstripe Bowl disaster when Coach Bob Huggins actually had a warm feeling come over him.
This has been a trying year for him in trying to create the type of team that he wants and he’s running out of time to get to that point, with his next game the Big 12 opener against Oklahoma.
So here he was, leading by upward of 16 points and playing the game as he envisioned it being played.
“I started thinking we were beginning to look like my team again,” he said.
His team is a team that plays tight, physical defense, that runs when it can run, that hits the boards hard and that makes a lot of shots.
Those halftime statistics showed him leading, 35-22, holding the opponents to just eight first-half field goals and 27.6 percent shooting while his team had a 23-15 rebounding lead and was shooting a respectable 46.4 percent from the floor.
“Soon as I start thinking like that they come out and shoot 63 percent in the second half,” Huggins said.
That’s correct. Even a six-point first-half advantage can’t be considered safe, not the way this team is playing. Indeed, with 4:21 remaining in the game Eric Stutz hit a pair of free throws to put EKU back in front at 63-61.
It took Aaric Murray to hit a shot inside to tie the game at 63-63 and then for the lead to be reobtained from a most unexpected source.
Dominique Rutledge, struggling along with just 37.1 percent free throws made entering the game, was put into the game by Huggins despite that.
Why would he chance that?
“We weren’t going to throw him the ball,” Huggins admitted. “He was in there to rebound and play defense.”
Of course, he almost immediately was fouled but stepped up calmly and canned two free throws.
Moments later he grabbed a rebound and was fouled.
No sweat; he made one of two free throws, then moments later after Eastern had scored, he slipped a nifty pass to Murray for a layup and a 63-63 tie.
Following a turnover, the ball again found its way into Rutledge’s hands and he was fouled, making one of two for a 64-63 lead and he wasn’t done yet, grabbing off an offensive rebound and being fouled and making two free throws.
Count ’em up. From 4:58 until 2:34 he grabbed two rebounds, had an assist and made five of six free throws. West Virginia led, 66-63, and would never cede that lead again.
You talk to players and they all carry praise for Rutledge, but with a qualifier.
“He was always a rebounder,” Deniz Kilicli said. “Go ask K.J. He was here today. He’s the hardest guy to block out ... when he wants to be.”
That is always what you hear ... when he wants to be.
Rutledge doesn’t get that, though.
“There are certain times in the game my team needs me to bring certain things. I try to bring the intensity I don’t see on the court. I try to make the extra pass. It has a lot to do with what I see when I’m on the sideline,” he said.
“But every game I try to bring my hard hat. I figure if I work harder than anybody else, everything else will come.”
WVU actually won this game at the free throw line, hitting a season-high 32 in a season-high 39 attempts.
Juwan Staten and Gary Browne shared high-scoring honors with 17 points each, Staten a perfect 9-9 from the free throw line and Browne hitting 10 of 11.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.