In what can only be described as an act of extreme unselfishness, starting center Jamie Smalligan texted Huggins Friday night with a message that the Mountaineers were a better match-up fro Duke without him in the lineup. Blue Devils center Brian Zoubek had not been used much in the postseason, and Smalligan would be at disadvantage in quickness. Better, the senior said, to start Wellington Smith and maximize the line-up.
Huggins concurred, and Smith made his first start of the season. The announcement came as a surprise to all but the team, which had heard of such offerings Friday night but had no confirmation until game day.
"How many other teams have that?," Huggins said. "He said it was just a better match without him. I am so happy for him and the state and the university. You know how much this means to our state."
And Smalligan, who has reiterated all season long that he only wants to win, and major reason he transferred to WVU. The senior often plays only the initial minutes of games, and is yanked in and out of both the line-up and rotation more than any other player due to his unique skill set of being an outside shooter in a 7-0, 265-pound body that can create offensive mismatches than can be given with back on defense. With Duke's lineup featuring no players taller than 6-8, the decision might have been clear, but it wasn't one Huggins necessarily wanted to make until Smalligan's gesture.
"They don't have a real center down there. I remember watching them growing up with one. This game is so important I thought why not start out right from the get-go and I will come off the bench," Smalligan said. "He knows I just want to win and I know that's what he is about and what we are all about right now. All he said was that when their big 7-0 center came in, I will be right there with him. I am ready whenever he needs me."
Smalligan played just five minutes, with one rebound and one turnover. Zoubek played just two, the pair largely leaving the outcome in the hands of teammates. That worked just fine for West Virginia, which used a pair of early second half three-pointers to rally from behind and outscore the Blue Devils by 11 in the last period to advance to the Sweet 16 with a 73-67 win.
"I don't know that went down at all, but that doesn't surprise me," said Alex Ruoff, who hit one of the key threes when he beat the shot clock with an attempt deep in the corner. "You talk to Smalligan and you now what kind of guy he is – team-first. I have had talks with him about his minutes and he is just a great guy and leader for our young guys. We were surprised the big seven-footer did not play. We thought he would and we could bring Jamie in then, but it was a different style of game."
With a similar outcome. At least partially because of his unselfishness, Smalligan and the Mountaineers will be able to play another day – namely, on March 27 in Phoenix, Ariz. against the winner of Xavier and Purdue.
"I'm not worried about it at all," Smalligan said. "I'll probably be starting next game. If not, that's fine, too. No matter how many minutes I play or anyone else plays, all we care about is getting that win and getting to the next round."