By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
If you are beginning to feel just a little bit like last year when West Virginia University turned a season about to go wrong into a run to the Final Four in the closing days of the regular season, do not feel alone.
The Mountaineers are starting to get that feeling, too.
A year ago they lost three of five, the last a rather ugly 11-point defeat at Connecticut before all of the pieces came together and they took off on an unexpected and improbable run of 10 straight victories, all the way through the Big East Tournament and to the Final Four.
Could the late-year magic be back, complete with a rather impressive 65-56 victory No. 16 before 13,241 wild fans who were sure they had more trouble from the officiating team of Jim Burr, Michael Stephens and James Breeding Jr. than they did with the Connecticut team Hall of Famer Jim Calhoun coached.
What is happening, you see, is that coach Bob Huggins has taken a team that wasn’t nearly as talented as last year, nursed it along, let it take its bumps and bruises along the way, kept it interesting, improving and believing, even through a loss to Marshall and another to Miami until now it has won three of its last four. Two of those have been over ranked teams in UConn and Notre Dame.
And they are doing it their way, with hustle and defense … the Bob Huggins way.
“They won in what I would consider to be Bob Huggins’ style, which is down the stretch with 2:12 to go,” Calhoun would say in the aftermath. “They out-toughed us. We needed to play physically inside and get some rebounds.
“You don’t expect the game to get away from you with 2:12 left,” Calhoun continued. “We’re a very good basketball team that, quite frankly, didn’t play tough enough.”
It was with 2:12 left that a timeout came with WVU clinging to a 3-point lead. When Alex Oriakhi missed a free throw that was collared by John Flowers, the entire complexion of the game began to change.
Huggins ran a play that forced the ball inside to Flowers, who went up for a challenged jump shot and missed it, but this was where the toughness showed at its best as Kevin Jones, who had an absolutely amazing evening, fought his way for the offensive rebound and put it back up for the basket.
Instead of a one-point game, had Oriakhi made his two free throws, WVU’s lead had grown to five and UConn was out of gas, mainly because their star player, Kemba Walker of the 22.8 scoring average, was being harassed and hassled.
A subtle coaching move was made by Huggins, who went to a point-drop zone, something he tried in the first half.
This time he changed the positioning of his personnel and took the gas from Walker’s tank. He hit his average with 22 points, but down the stretch he hit only one of seven shots in the last six minutes, that being a meaningless 3-point shot with 13 seconds left to play.
“We never let him get an easy look,” said guard Joe Mazzulla, who not only did a strong defensive job but also tied his career high of 18 points. “Plus he had to guard the ball throw screens and back screens, and we wore him down.”
Why did Huggins make that change?
“It was desperation is what it was,” Huggins explained. “They were scoring every possession.”
It was even worse than that. UConn had hit seven of its last eight shots before Huggins made the move.
While all of this was going on there were the cases of Jones and Flowers, both of whom played absolutely critical roles in what may be the biggest victory of the season.
Jones went through a dreadful shooting first half, hitting but one of six shots and looking so lost at times that you expected him to reach into his shorts and pull out a GPS.
“It’s horrible, frustrating,” Jones said of going through such a dismal shooting half. “But you have to keep your head up.”
Actually it was Huggins who propped his head up, running a play out of halftime that got him an open shot that he buried, one of six assists from Cam Thoroughman. Jones would not miss again, hitting all five shots in the second half, finishing with 15 points and 10 rebounds and making the key play in the game.
Then there was Flowers, who was the most efficient player on the floor, hitting three of four shots, picking of six rebounds, getting four assists, two blocks and two steals.
The second steal was as crucial as anything that occurred all evening, for it came with the score 54-51 in favor of the Mountaineers, but a blocking foul had been called on Mazzulla that had the fans screaming words that cannot be printed here.
Connecticut could have cut the lead to two or tied the score as it took the ball out under its own basket, but Flowers stole the inbounds pass and got it to Deniz Kilicli who scored at the other end, bringing the crowd to full throttle.
Huggins has been awed by the way Flowers has made himself into a player, hitting free throws and threes and playing defense, completely changing himself as a player.
“We’re going down the floor, Mazzulla yells at me, ‘How do you want to guard those staggers?’” Huggins recalled. “Then Flowers yells at me, ‘Are we switching staggers?’ Switching staggers? Four years ago a stagger was a bar downtown to him.”
In the end it was UConn who wound up staggering while WVU ended up with its 10th conference game with a Saturday home game against Louisville left on the schedule. With the win and one by Cincinnati over Marquette, the Mountaineers are in a three-way tie for sixth place in the Big East with Cincinnati and Georgetown.
E-mail Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org.