That’s not to note that West Virginia’s head coach doesn’t have a healthy appreciation for his senior guard – and perhaps no more so than after Browne took over the point guard duties for an ill Juwan Staten and anchored the No. 17 Mountaineers in rallying from 10 points behind for to the 78-67 victory at TCU. Browne, hindered by three early fouls, played the majority of the second half, scoring a season-high 16 points and dominating any match-up Horned Frogs head coach Trent Johnson could muster.
It likely brought a smile from June, who Bob says refers to Browne as “my little Gary.” But Browne flashed his big time play when West Virginia spread the floor, taking multiple defenders to the rim and either finishing primarily from the left-hand side or pulling up for short jumpers that kept nursing the Mountaineer lead down the stretch. Browne turned the ball over just once while hitting five of 11 shots from the floor and six of nine from the line, and he kept an out-of-sync offense from going completely off the rails early, continually settling down some plays and setting up others. His direction of backcourt mates Jevon Carter, Dax Miles and Jaysean Paige was excellent, and his passion and intensity of play furthered what WVU was doing all game with its constant pressure.
“Gary was terrific when we spread it,” Huggins said on the MSN by IMG postgame radio show. “It takes a lot – he sat a long time with those three fouls – it takes a lot to come out and make plays. Gary just made huge plays for us.”
It figured, at least to laymen and admittedly this writer, that West Virginia – even against a less-than-stellar foe – would struggle more sans Staten than it did. The preseason Big 12 Player of the Year is essentially the crux of much of what West Virginia does in its half court offense, and Staten also serves as the primary press breaker and ball hander at end-of-game situations. Sidelined by flu-like symptoms, those duties fell to Browne, who capitalized and handed TCU its first loss of the season after the best start in school history at 13-0.
“We scrimmaged Ohio State without him and we were fine,” said Huggins, who clearly knew better than to think the Mountaineers would be inoperable without Staten. “We didn’t have Wanny early on and we were fine. He is a big part of what we do, but he couldn’t have done any better than what Gary did when we spread it.”
Browne was at his best when it mattered most, repeatedly beating Brandon Parrish off the bounce over the final six minutes to the point where Johnson was forced to make a defensive switch. Browne’s ability to easily get past Parrish collapsed the TCU defense, so that other defenders were forced to offer help side defense. That peeled defenders off Devin Williams on the inside, so that even when Browne failed to convert on the drive, Williams was there to clean up the play. That resulted in a pair of traditional three-point plays and massively helped Williams to a 14-point, eight-rebound performance that was arguably his best of the season in totality. Williams secured every significant rebound, hit all six of his free throws, and, maybe best of all, didn’t pull the ball back down to waist level on a rebound. Instead, Williams went right back up with the ball over his head, a vast improvement from earlier struggled with the like.
The duo’s relationship became almost perfectly symbiotic in the last five minutes, with Browne managing the ball and Williams handling the Horned Frogs on the interior. In one stretch around the 4:45 mark, both took turns creating chagrin for Parrish, Browne beating forward to the bucket and Williams blocking his shot from behind. Browne then blasted past the wilting sophomore again on the next possession, flipping a nifty one-handed shot off the top of the glass from a sharp angle for the score and the foul.
“You know who else is back to being my guy? Devin,” Huggins said. “Devin got every rebound. To me, that’s Dev’s future. He just has to go down and rebound the ball. That’s the Devin that I know and love.”
Browne missed the resulting free throw, but no matter. Jonathan Holton grabbed the board and fired back out to Browne, who calmly reset the offense with a 68-61 lead with 3:30 left. Johnson made the switch by then, putting 6-5 senior guard Trey Zeigler on Browne. The response? Another blow by drive to the left, with a pull-up jumper just outside the paint. And when it was time to milk clock, WVU leading 73-65 inside two minutes, it was Browne who had the handle. Really, the lone major mistake was a behind-the-back pass attempt for his lone turnover.
Browne also hit a pair of free throws with 90 seconds left for a 76-67 palindrome of an edge that signaled what was essentially the end of the competitive portion of the game, and gave West Virginia its 13th win in 14 games this season – the school’s best start since the 1981-82 team began 24-1. That also finished Browne’s scoring one point shy of his career-best 17, set two years ago against Eastern Kentucky. TCU, one of six undefeated teams to begin the day, saw its win streak snapped at a baker’s dozen – somewhat apropos as the Frogs had played mainly creampuffs.
“We found a way to hang in there,” Huggins said. “First half we weren’t very good.”
And Browne wasn’t on the floor. That’s hardly a coincidence.