Phillip's clutch shot product of hard work

There was a time not long ago this season when Tarik Phillip wouldn't have been able to fire up a three with time winding down in a close game of the NCAA tournament with the outcome hanging in the balance.

He had played five games in a row without scoring a point, and had only played more than 10 minutes once during that time. His shots weren't falling, he wasn't making the impact he had been making on the game defensively throughout the season and things just weren't right with his game.

So he got in the gym. A lot.

After getting to West Virginia not knowing much about the dedication and determination that it would take to keep a spot on the rotation in a major Division I basketball program, it finally clicked for him.

"I just didn't have any confidence in myself at that point," he said. "Everyone needs to see shots go in and when you put in that work by yourself to get there when no one is watching, you can see yourself getting there and it finally starts to happen. You feel like when you do that they'll start to go in more in the games."

And it started to pay off rather quickly. Since then Phillip's minutes have gone up - partially thanks to the stretch in which injuries to Juwan Staten and Gary Browne made the WVU backcourt a bit shorthanded and made it necessary for the sophomore guard to be ready to jump into action more often. But the results were there as well.

Phillip was back to his normal self, disrupting things and using his length as a defender, helping to create offense for WVU at the point guard spot and finding ways to get easy buckets when he had the chance to.

"The one redeeming quality that all of our guys have is that they really like to play. So when their time starts getting cut because somebody else is playing better, those are the guys you find in the gym more," said West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins. "(Tarik) wanted to get back in the rotation. And these guys hear from us all the time, if you want to play more then play better. It's a pretty simple formula. How do I get more time? Play better. What do I have to do? Make a shot when you're open, run a ball down, get a rebound. It's that simple."

Fast-forward to Saturday as Phillip sat in the Mountaineer locker room following the team's closed practice in Columbus with a flock of media members surrounding him, asking questions about his desperation three (as he called it) with less than 30 seconds to play that sealed West Virginia's first postseason victory since 2011. A huge grin stretched across his face as he recalled what happened the day before - about how his phone was blowing up with family and friends congratulating him on his big shot, his big moment. But if there's one thing Phillip has learned from his up-and-down debut season at WVU, it's that you can't get too caught up in a single moment, whether it be good or bad. You have to keep your head down and keep moving forward to the ultimate goal.

"This is what we all want to play college basketball for," he said. "You play for this opportunity all of your life, and now that it's here I just want to take it and run with it. There's more work left for us to do."

Phillip understands the meaning of hard work, and has grown to be thankful for what he has at WVU thanks in part to the road that he had to travel to get to this point. A Brooklyn, N.Y., native, he was set to go to South Carolina following his final season at Queen City Prep in Charlotte, N.C., but was forced to go to junior college after academic issues temporarily derailed those Division I dreams.

From there, he made himself stand out at Independence Community College as one of the best and most versatile guards in the country at that level, averaging 18.7 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game en route to becoming both the Jayhawk Conference's Player and Freshman of the Year before being offered a scholarship from WVU last March.

"It was a long road (to get to WVU). It felt like probably the longest process of my life," Phillip said, reflecting on his time in junior college. "It was really humbling because it makes you understand how much you have to work to be able to get here.

"It makes you appreciate it when you look back and you know where you were and you know where we are now and we're here in the tournament playing to try to be the best team in the nation. I remember being there and thinking and wondering when I'd get the chance to get to where I want to be and I'm here now. And I'm ready to keep going."

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