(Special to BlueGoldNews.com by Cam Huffman)
The annual showcase has featured Mountaineer recruits for each of the last four Aprils, and this year was no different as Brandon Knapper. Chase Harler, Sagaba Konate and Maciej Bender took the court for the Crossroads Chevrolet All-Stars, playing with and against Division I recruits from within West Virginia and outside of the Mountain State borders.
Joining the future Mountaineers on the Crossroads Chevrolet roster, coached by another former WVU player in South Charleston head coach Vic Herbert, were Jethro Tshisumpa of Mountain Mission, who will play at Arizona State, Tavian Dunn-Martin of Huntington High, who will play at Akron, and Phillip Beldsoe of Wheeling Park, who will play at Marshall.The opponent, Employers Innovative Network, included Levi Cook, a former Liberty High School star and WVU commit who is now at Elev8 Academy in Florida and recently committed to DePaul, Curtis Jones of Huntington Prep, who's headed to Indiana University, and Garrett Gilkeson of Parkersburg South, who will join the team at VMI next season.
The intensity of the game rose well above the normal level of an all-star contest, and it took two overtimes before EIN walked off the floor with a 133-129 victory. The future Mountaineers put on a show, even in the loss, in front of a Beckley-Raleigh County Convention Center filled largely with gold and blue. Knapper, a 6-foot-1 South Charleston star, who will head to prep school for a year before joining the WVU program, led the Mountaineer contingent with 21 points and seven assists. The guard also grabbed five rebounds, recorded two steals and finished 8 for 17 from the field.
"Players on both teams are competitive," said Knapper, who originally committed to WVU as a sophomore. "Toward the end, we started playing harder, and coach started keeping in the players that were playing the best for us. It was a good game."
Harler, a 6-3 guard who led Wheeling Central to the Class A championship game in each of the last three years, winning the title as a sophomore, scored 18 points and dished out five assists. He grabbed two rebounds and was 5 for 10 from the field.
"It was a lot of fun," said Harler. "It was a high-scoring game. This was my second all-star game since I graduated, but this one was a lot more competitive and a lot better defense. It was a lot of fun playing with the other WVU guys. There were a lot of great players, and almost everybody is playing Division I. We all wanted to come out here and compete."
Bender played the best game of the future WVU big men. The 6-10 post, who played at Mountain Mission in Grundy, Va., this past season, had 12 points and eight rebounds. He showed good touch around the basket and the ability to step out and knock down a jumper when needed.
"I play like a stretch 4," he explained. "I can pass the ball and shoot as a big guy. So I can stretch the floor so I create more space for everybody. "It was a good experience playing in a game like this with my teammates. Now I'm ready to go to West Virginia."
Konate, who won the dunk contest prior to the game, finished with eight points and seven rebounds. He also had a pair of assists but was just 3 for 7 from the field during the contest, which was played with 20-minute halves and a shot clock.
"It was fun to play against those great guys," he said. "We learned a lot. I like to compete, even when I was little. Every time, I like to compare myself."
The contest wasn't just a taste of the future for the crowd, it also helped wet the players' appetite for what's ahead in Morgantown.
"I'm looking forward to playing with them," said Harler. "Maciej is able to step out and hit the shot and is a skilled big man. Sag is a big body down low. He can post up and hit the little mid-range. "Even though it was an all-star game, we did build a little chemistry and friendships. I'm definitely excited to get there. Just being able to hang around these guys in the hotel and go out to eat, that definitely transitions onto the court."
"Me and Chase have played together in AAU, so we've always had a great connection on the court. But it was fun playing with Maciej and Konate," agreed Knapper. "(Konate) attacks the boards hard. Anything I put up, I know he's going to finish. I love the way he's playing."
The short time with his teammates only makes the prep school choice more difficult for Knapper, but he's confident the plan is what's best for his future. "It's going to be tough," he said. "But I know Coach (Bob) Huggins has plans for me once I get up there. I told them to hold it down for me. I can't wait."
The big men may not have the luxury of waiting for their turn and learning away from the spotlight, especially if WVU junior forward Devin Williams follows through with his plan with heading to the NBA.
"I would like to see Devin," said Sagaba, a native of Mali, who played at Hermitage (Pa.) Kennedy Catholic. "I've got to learn more from him on rebounding and post-up moves. "I get more rebounds, but I don't have the post-up moves. I try to dunk everything." Bender said he'd also like to see Williams come back, but he's preparing for a situation in which he doesn't.
"He didn't get an agent yet, so we'll see," said Bender. "It's a big challenge, but I think I'm ready."
Not all of the stars Saturday were future Mountaineers. Dunn-Martin didn't let his 5-8 stature set him back as he led all scorers with 33 points. He also grabbed seven rebounds, dished out five assists and recorded four steals. He was 9 for 23 from 3-point range. The Most Valuable Player award went to a former WVU commitment. Cook, who gave his verbal to his in-state school as a sophomore at Liberty and then backed out of that commitment as a senior at Huntington Prep, when he didn't like what he was hearing from the Mountaineer coaches, scored 24 points and pulled down eight boards. He got the best of the head-to-head matchup with Koonate most of the night. Cook admitted after the game he was playing with a little extra motivation against the future Mountaineers.
"I think everybody knew what was going on," he said. "I feel like people doubted me. Instead of talking and running my mouth, I just showed them in this game. I wanted to prove a couple of people wrong, and I did. If that's my replacement, they're going to have a tough time in the Big 12." Cook called the recruiting process "dirty and slimy" but said he holds no hard feelings toward the school he cheered for most of his life. "I had them going to the Elite Eight in my bracket," he said with a chuckle. "I was mad as hell when Stephen F. Austin beat them. I have nothing but love for them., I hope Devin Williams kills. I hope chase Harler and Brandon go up there and to their thing. I like Maciej. I want nothing but the best for them."
Maciej Bender (25) drives into the lane
Sagaba Konate (50) scores at the rim
Brandon Knapper (4) pushes the ball upcourt
Chase Harler (14) gets by a defender for a lay-up