By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
At first glance, looking down upon the Coliseum court from above, it appeared as if an advanced game of “Twister” was going on under the West Virginia University basket, players laying in the foul lane under the basket in a tangled mess of arms and legs.
WVU was leading by 10 at the moment, but as has happened so many times this year, was playing without its pilot light burning, almost waiting for something bad to happen. The scrum had been created when Joe Mazzulla had driven to the basket against Notre Dame and been seemingly mugged, bodies flying in every direction as referee Tim Higgins choked on his whistle.
West Virginia coach Bob Huggins saw this through unbelieving eyes and was both animated and quite vocal in his displeasure with Higgins’ eyesight and judgment, leading the veteran official to slap him with a technical foul, perhaps exactly as Huggins had wished for it proved to be the turning point in the game, if not in the Mountaineer season.
From that point on the crowd was inflamed, the Mountaineer players inspired and the point made quite dramatically that the only difference between Huggins and Higgins is the difference between “u and I.”
Riding that wave of emotion, one that even Notre Dame coach Mike Brey could not stem with a rather flamboyant technical of his own, the Mountaineers stunned the No. 7/8 Fighting Irish, 72-58, before 12,298 fans.
The victory was crucial to WVU in that it gave the Mountaineers a 17-9 record with an 8-6 mark in conference play, leaving them seventh in the Big East.
Huggins denied culpability in creating the energy that led to his team’s ability to not only hold on but widen its lead, at least to the media.
Joe Mazzulla, who scored 16 points, grabbed five rebounds and dished out seven assists, told a different tale.
“If there’s one thing about Huggs, he never gets an unnecessary technical. He kind of came over and told us he got that one on purpose. I think not only us, but the crowd fed off it, and we were able to sustain it,” Mazzulla said.
“Huggs is crazy man,” added Truck Bryant. “All you can do is laugh and enjoy the moment. He’s always in the game. Not everything is called right, and that brought us together.”
If there was one person who didn’t need any more energy out of the game it was Bryant, West Virginia’s much maligned guard, who broke out of a seven-week slump that started right after he scored 25 points on New Year’s Day at Marquette.
From that point on until he walked onto the Coliseum floor Saturday, Bryant had hit only 25 of 106 shots, a 23.6 percentage, while making 10 of 47 3s, 21.3 percent.
It had seemed that every game he would make his first field goal try, then miss everything else he threw up at the basket.
In this game he missed his first shot, a rather ugly looking layup, and, in fact, missed all four of his first-half shots before hitting four of six 3s and 6 for 8 free throws as he finished with 24 points, his second highest output of the season.
“At halftime, Coach (Billy) Hahn told me I was going to make shots in the second half,” Bryant said. “He said to trust him. I made my first shot and got some confidence. That’s what it was, Hahn’s words of wisdom. He should of said it earlier. I would have been playing better weeks ago.”
The game was huge for Bryant.
“My confidence is skyrocketing,” he said.
Bryant wasn’t sure what had happened to his shooting touch.
“It’s not like I wasn’t focused, but I had a lot on my mind, some family things,” he revealed.
Asked if he wanted to go any further on the family matter, he only would say that involved his cousins in New York and that it was “real serious.” He also said that he was over it now.
“I’ll be all right,” Bryant said.
With Mazzulla driving and Bryant hitting from the outside, WVU is a different offense, one playing off the other. If Mazzulla drives successfully, as he did against Notre Dame, it creates room for Bryant to shoot. At the same time, if Bryant is making shots, they have to come out and guard him and Mazzulla gets room to drive.
“Bryant got us going, which helps,” Huggins said. “He got some step-in shots, and he got it going.”
The Mountaineers were dreadful in the first half, hitting just 8 of 28 shots, but trailed by only a point at 27-26.
“I told them at halftime that I didn’t know if we could play any harder than we were playing. I also told them I didn’t think we could play any worse offensive than we had,” Huggins said.
In the second half Bryant got the hot hand and Huggins just got hot and that turned the game around.
E-mail Bob Hertzel at email@example.com.