MORGANTOWN — The first time West Virginia worked the ball around the horn and into the corner to Jonathan Holton, he threw up a 3-pointer that sailed off into the New York night only vaguely in direction of the basket.
There was nothing new there. While he came to Morgantown with the reputation of being able to hit 3s on a regular basis, he’d given no indication of doing it through the season’s first 10 games.
He had been, in fact, downright awful.
Yet WVU was still giving him chances, which was somewhat surprising.
“They were throwing me a bone or two every so often,” was the way Holton put it.
See, there was an unseen side to Holton.
“We watch him every day,” coach Bob Huggins said after Holton bounced back from that awful first shot and hit two straight 3s as the Mountaineers beat North Carolina State, 83-69, Saturday night in Madison Square Garden.
“It’s not like he can’t shoot,” continued Huggins, who enjoyed his 750th career victory. “I think he gets anxious. He gets in a hurry, goes a little too fast. He’s had days where he just doesn’t miss one. It just hasn’t transferred over to the game.”
This time it transferred into the game and had everyone on the Mountaineer bench celebrating.
It was, in Huggins’ eyes, big news.
“If we’re going to make a serious run, he needs to make those shots,” Huggins said.
Huggins envisions this team, built around the press and Juwan Staten’s special talents as a point guard, as a team that can win a lot of games and make a run in the NCAA Tournament ... but unlike Kentucky, it can’t do it simply on talent.
It has to buy into his philosophy and get itself into better shape than any team that has ever played here, for the pace is hectic and physical and the parts all have to fit together.
And Holton’s job is to take a big away from the basket and have to play him, which means he has to show an ability to score with those 3-point shots.
“If he’ll make those shots ... I think Jaysean Paige will hit some big shots for us and Juwan makes shots and Jevon (Carter) can make shots and Dax (Miles Jr.) can make shots. If that happens, we can spread people and let Wanny do what he does,” Huggins said.
And what Wanny Staten does is get the ball to the free throw line, then see if a big comes off Devin Williams to pick him up. If he does, he drops the ball down low to Williams. If the big on Holton drops in for a rebound or to clog the lane, Staten can hit Holton for that 3 from the corner.
And if everyone stays put, Staten can either pull up for a jumper or drive to the hoop.
It’s Basketball 101 ... and it works.
But oddly, the pressure isn’t on Staten to run it, for he has proven he can do that.
Instead, it’s on the likes of Holton to start knocking down those shots as Big 12 play comes around and the freshmen Carter and Miles and the transfer Paige to do their thing while Williams has to score on the inside, something that strangely disappeared for a while.
In the Garden Saturday he came up with 16 points and eight rebounds, giving WVU the kind of things they came to expect from him through his freshman year.
“I was just trying to be more patient and let the game come to me. I think in the games before I was rushing things. I let it come to me and let it flow,” Williams said. “I’ve been struggling with the jumper for the last three weeks so I’ve been in the gym working on it. I just got to keep believing my craft, stay humble and keep working.”
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.