By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Normally, when you say West Virginia University’s basketball team is “in a zone,” you are speaking about the way the Mountaineers are shooting the ball, shots just seemingly going in from everywhere.
Seldom does it apply to their defense, which Bob Huggins would prefer to be an in-your-face, physical, switching man-to-man.
That was what he tried in the first half of his 1,000th game as coach on Saturday against Texas Christian, and while it did bring him a three-point lead, thanks to Jabarie Hinds burying a 3 at the buzzer and freshman Terry Henderson coming off the bench to score 15 first-half points, it left Huggins with a precarious feeling.
See, TCU found a way to shoot 60 percent against the WVU defense and, as Huggins would state after the game, “You’re not going to win doing that.”
So, at halftime, Huggins changed to a zone defense, something that hurts him more than slamming his hand in the car door, held TCU to just 25 percent shooting in the second half and walked away with an important 63-50 road victory.
The win lifted the Mountaineers to 12-11 for the season and to .500 in the Big 12 at 5-5, but even more important it was a giant stride forward in defining the team as it will be down the stretch.
But first, about that 2-3 zone defense that changed the flow of the game.
“It’s kind of like when we were kids, playing sandlot football,” Huggins said. “We’d be drawing in the dirt, saying ‘You go here; you go there.’ That’s how it was.”
That was more exaggeration for effect than truth, for WVU does practice that zone, as well as point-drop and a 1-3-1, but given his preference he’d rather play face up than any other way.
The zone had some flaws. It’s hard to rebound out of the zone, and TCU outrebounded the Mountaineers, 32-23, with 13 of those rebounds coming on the offensive side.
Still, they couldn’t do offensively what they wanted to do while WVU was having its way, in part because its young guards — three of them freshmen, two sophomores — are finally discovering how to run the motion offense.
WVU finished with 17 assists on 22 baskets, which means the Mountaineers were making passes to set up baskets, which is what the motion offense is all about, anyone being able to get an assist or to get a basket.
“That’s the kind of stat line we came to expect because of the motion. Everyone has an opportunity to pass it,” Huggins said.
Passing it sets up easy baskets, and so WVU shot 51.2 percent for the game while hitting an unbelievable 7 of 10 3-point shots. This was a team that earlier in the season made 3 of 20 3-point shots.
Henderson’s first-half play allowed WVU to actually be in the game, for the Mountaineers struggled early until he came in. At one point he made 15 of 19 West Virginia points as they erased a 19-14 deficit and rushed to the lead, hitting five of five shots in the half.
His best play, though, was the most unexpected, coming as he sneaked in for an offensive rebound on a missed free throw under the basket, when he started standing out by the free-throw circle, and laying it back in.
In the second half, though, he scored only two points, but the other guards really took over, Eron Harris finishing with 14 points and Hinds having maybe his best game of the season.
“I thought it was one of his better games,” Huggins said. “He played well against K-State but couldn’t make a free throw. He made free throws today.”
Hinds did a little bit of everything with four steals, four assists and 12 points, while that 3 at the buzzer to end the first half and give WVU the lead was unexpected, considering he had made but 16 of 65 3-pointers on the year into the game, 24.6 percent.
“We’re playing three sophomores and two freshmen at guard and that’s generally not a recipe for success,” Huggins said.
WVU returns home for a few days, then heads back to Texas on Wednesday to play at Baylor.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org ot follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.