MORGANTOWN — When a team loses as tough a game as West Virginia did on Tuesday at the Coliseum, dropping a 94-89 overtime decision to now Big 12 regular season champion Baylor, you tend to get caught up in all the wrong things.
Yes, there were mistakes upon mistakes on both sides, just as there were heroic efforts that showed up in the box score.
But if you are looking for something on the West Virginia side to ease some of the pain, it was there, although it’s easy to overlook in the box score and I’m not even sure his name came up in the post-game press conference.
This game, however, was another step forward for Jalen Bridges, who at this time last year when WVU was beating No. 4 Baylor in the final game of the season that was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic was redshirting and convincing his coaches and teammates that he was an All-Conference player waiting to happen.
Bridges, of course, is the latest gift from Fairmont Senior High to WVU, which has developed a pipeline for athletes from its neighbor most directly to the south that has made life a lot easier in both football and basketball at WVU.
“He was one of the most aggressive guys we had,” WVU guard Sean McNeil said in a recent interview “He would attack the offensive glass. He was going after every ball. He tried to tip-dunk it all the time. He could get way above the rim for rebounds.”
But it’s one thing to do it in practice, quite another to do in the Big 12 as a redshirt freshman in what clearly is the Game of the Year in conference play.
The box score notes that Bridges had 12 points, seven rebounds, a block and a steal.
It may not have been highlight stuff for ESPN, but it is the kind of thing that his teammates have been watching develop as the season went on.
Bridges’ first start was against Oklahoma and he scored 19 points, but then disappeared for a while, the kind of inconsistency you expect to see from young players.
“I think confidence is an issue for everybody at some point,” veteran guard Jordan McCabe said last week. “For JB, I talked to him early on and you see those ups and down. I still go through that myself. As you get older, you’re more prepared to take things on. Confidence is huge for JB and he’s got it right now.”
He certainly has come on strongly over the last couple of weeks.
Heading into the Baylor game, Bridges had hit nine of his previous 10 shots, missing a tip that really may not even have been a shot at the end of the Kansas State victory. And over the last four games before Baylor, where he made four of nine shots including two of five from 3-point range, he had made 16 of 25 shots for 64%.
But it isn’t just offense. It’s defense, rebounding, passing.
He is learning and producing as he does it.
“I think the word is active,” Huggins said when asked to describe how he has approached things. “He has become so much more active. He gets his hands on a lot of balls. He gets his hands on a lot of rebounds. He has blocked shots and that has gradually gotten better and better.”
So much so that at a key moment in this Baylor game he had a spectacular block, coming in behind and blocking a layup attempt by Jared Butler, who never sensed his presence.
Bridges has the kind of timing with his best plays that make you realize as soon he gets more experience he will be a go-to guy in key moments throughout his career.
Take overtime, for example. Bridges not only scored the Mountaineers’ only basket in the extra period, but it was a 3-pointer and it came right after Butler had hit a 3-pointer to give Baylor the lead for the first time in overtime by a point.
“JB is blessed,” Huggins said. “Corey [his father] was a good player in his own right. He studies basketball and spent a lot of time working with his son. I look at it how it happened with me. I couldn’t screw anything up without getting caught.”
Of course, Huggins father was a Hall of Fame high school basketball coach in Ohio and learned the game from him.
“Corey spent an enormous amount of time, just he and JB in the gym ... yet he was smart enough to know when to bring someone else in because JB might be tired of hearing the same voice.
“My dad wouldn’t do that because he was afraid he might have to pay them,” Huggins joked.
Last year, Bridges was all set to go to prep school but Huggins suggested he might benefit more redshirting here, practicing with a college team and working out in a college weight room.
“The next day he called and wanted to know if he could get in school,” Huggins said.
It was probably the smartest thing Bridges did and now Huggins compares him to another local player he had.
“As time goes by JB will be better and better like Nate Adrian got,” he said.
And games like the one he played in on Tuesday will only speed his development.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel