By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
The first half of West Virginia’s 82-49 victory over Robert Morris at the Coliseum on Tuesday night had been, to be kind, somewhat lethargic for a West Virginia basketball team that under Bob Huggins has earned a reputation as a team that, if nothing else, will fight and scratch and claw.
Huggins had watched and fought the urge to count the sparse crowd, one that totaled just 6,443, admitted that “there was a period in the first half when I thought that might be more appealing.”
His team had somehow staggered into the locker room with a 32-28 lead and if the players expected to hear fire and brimstone from their coach, it wasn’t going to be on this night.
Maybe it was the suit and tie he donned for this game that toned him down a bit, but he said no, it was more having to sing that same old song his team had heard.
“I didn’t know what to tell them,” he admitted. “How many times have I told them about hitting the boards, about playing hard, about passing the ball? What do they want me to say? ‘Please play.’”
Oh, he did have his usual chat with his big man, Deniz Kilicli, who was benched in favor of Danny Jennings, because he had played soft and had the ball taken from him so many times over the past few games.
“I had a good talk with Deniz at halftime about handing the ball to the opponent,” Huggins said, having seen a 5-11 guard sneak up on him and take the ball away. “He is just such a good guy and is so charitable. I am just trying to get him to not be so charitable.”
So it was as the second half started with the same starting five he had as the game began, he was hoping for better. Instead, Russell Johnson hit a 3-pointer to cut the lead to one and then guard Truck Bryant stood ready to take the ball out of bounds, looking in at an empty back court.
No Mountaineer was on that side of the midstripe. No one was there to take a pass as Huggins, steam seeming to be seeping from his ears, signaled a time out, turned to his bench and hollered “Get me five other players.”
Only 24 seconds were gone from the second half clock.
“First ones up were going in,” he would say. “I didn’t care who went in.”
It turned out to be Joe Mazzulla, Cam Thoroughman, Jonnie West, Dalton Pepper and Kilicli replacing John Flowers, Bryant, Jennings, Casey Mitchell and Kevin Jones.
Jennings, Mitchell and Jones were not to play again, Jones in part because he has a leg injury that may keep him out of the next game.
As they went in, Huggins looked at the group and had this awful thought.
“Who’s going to score?”
He need not worry, for this group came in and began passing and passing, slashing and slashing. It was almost like watching the Harlem Globetrotters against the Washington Generals. And as the energy built, Kilicli came to life.
The group was in there for 10 possessions, hitting seven of eight shots with two turnovers, outscoring Robert Morris, 15-4, before Bryant and Flowers returned.
Not that it ended there. Before Robert Morris would score another point WVU add eight more and be in control by 20.
That’s when Kilicli came to life, finishing with 14 points and three rebounds.
“I was just mad,” he said. “I don’t care what people say. I went out and played. I did my thing.”
Perhaps he should be mad more often.
“I was mad in Minneapolis and I played good there,” he noted.
With Kilicli, it is coming slowly and he isn’t about to proclaim himself ready to be a star.
“I’m always confident, but I don’t want to get cocky,” he said. “It was just a 6-6 guy and it was just Robert Morris. Robert Morris had good players, but when we get into the Big East and play teams like Syracuse we will see good players with size, too.”
Once that second group came in everything changed.
“In the first half we were stagnant,” Mazzulla would say. “In the second half we were making five, six, seven passes, reversing the ball, getting guys open.”
All of the players who came off the bench played big time, although the player of the game had to be John Flowers, who despite a hip injury had his first double-double ever with 12 points, 10 recournds, 5-for-5 shooting, two assists and two blocks.
Jennings played well when he was in there with six points, West had five points and four rebounds, Thoroughman had four rebounds and four assists and Mazzulla had six points and three assists.
E-mail Bob Hertzel at email@example.com.