Solid Start

With many new pieces in place for the 2010 season, fans had to wonder just how the West Virginia men's basketball team would look in its regular season opener against a quality Oakland team. If Friday night's 95-71 win was any indication, this year's Mountaineers have the potential to do just fine.

The hosts went on runs of 10-0 and 19-4 in the first half to build a 24-point advantage by the intermission and cruised for the final 20 minutes of their win over the Golden Grizzlies, a team that ended 2010 by dominating the Summit League and giving Pittsburgh a fight in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

But WVU looked like a team that was still riding high after a trip to the Final Four last April, even though three of the starters from that team are no longer around.

In the stead of Devin Ebanks, Wellington Smith and Da'Sean Butler (who was in the Coliseum crowd Friday night and received a boisterous ovation from the other 12,706 in attendance -- the largest-ever crowd for a Mountaineer home opener), a group of role players from last year's team rose to the occasion.

It was Casey Mitchell, Dalton Pepper and Jonnie West -- a trio of players who saw limited minutes last season -- who led the way for West Virginia in the first half.

By game's end, Mitchell and Pepper were joined by starters Truck Bryant, John Flowers and Deniz Kilicli, as well as reserve guard Joe Mazzulla, in double figures. None of the eight Mountaineers who scored had less than nine points, and none of them had more than 16.

That balance to the offense made life easier on Kevin Jones, the team's star forward, who is expected to shoulder a much larger load this season than in his first two years. The junior only needed to tally nine points, and his team still pulled away for an easy victory.

"KJ's going to have games where he gets his 25 and 15," Mountaineer head coach Bob Huggins said. "I don't think there's any doubt about that. But I think [OU head coach] Greg [Kampe] is a good coach and they set up to make sure they did a good job on KJ. Hopefully the strength of our team will be that he can get nine [points] and we can still win."

Indeed, that still happened, and players indicated that their dominance was partially the result of some "bulletin board" material in the form of a few press clippings they had seen that indicated the Mountaineers might be ripe for an upset at the hands of Oakland.

"We all try to find stuff to get us riled up, and you know, that's part of it," Huggins admitted.

"I don't have a computer, so I don't have any idea. I'm computer illiterate. MySpace is where you're not. I'm not into all that."

But Huggins' players were, and Mitchell said that was at least one reason why WVU hoped to not just beat the Golden Grizzlies, but instead wanted to rout them.

It didn't look like it might be such a dominant night early. But after a tight first eight minutes, the Mountaineers used that balanced offense and a stronger defense (after what had been a sloppy start) to forge a 10-0 run that put them ahead 24-14.

But it was a 19-4 surge at the end of the first half that truly blew the contest open. Mitchell was the catalyst to that run, scoring seven points in that span. A Truck Bryant pull-up jumper made it 55-31 at the intermission, and the rout was officially on.

Mitchell, a senior guard, had 12 points at halftime and was one of the team's surprise stars in the opening half. He was joined by West, a reserve guard, who canned three 3-pointers in the first half. Another bench player, Pepper, added seven more points in the opening frame.

"I think there will be a very healthy competition for playing time, with Casey and with Pep and with Jonnie," Huggins said. "If one of them comes in and doesn't have real good practices, they'll have a hard time getting playing time. I think that's healthy."

Almost every WVU player got into the act. Ten Mountaineers saw action in the first half, and Huggins' squad still shot 66.7 percent from the field (22-of-33) and was a torrid 64.3 percent (9-of-14) from 3-point range in the opening 20 minutes.

They turned defense into offense, forcing 12 turnovers from the Golden Grizzlies by the intermission. Meanwhile, West Virginia players tallied 14 assists on 22 made field goals in that span and only committed five turnovers.

That was all it would take, as a sloppy, foul-filled second half (in which three OU players were disqualified with five personal fouls) ensued. Oakland never seriously threatened the hosts in the final 20 minutes, and the Mountaineers won easily in their only contest before departing for the Puerto Rico Tip-Off tournament next week.

For the Golden Grizzlies, star center Keith Benson led the way with a game-high 22 points and 15 rebounds. He only had six points and four boards at halftime, however, bolstering his statistics in the second half when Huggins opted not to have his players double-team the 6-foot-11 star so WVU's big men could "to try to learn how to guard."

Forward Will Hudson added 16 points and guard Travis Bader had 15 more for Oakland.

Flowers led six Mountaineers in double figures with 16 points. Kilicli had a double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds, while Mazzulla came off the bench to add 15 points, seven assists and five rebounds without committing a turnover.

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