Unlikely Heroes

The No. 8 West Virginia men's basketball team had to rely on some of its more rarely-used reserves to weather the storm early in its season-opening game with Loyola University of Maryland on Sunday afternoon. WVU then pulled away in the second half and earned a tougher-than-expected 83-60 win at the WVU Coliseum.

After failing to hold a lead of any more than three points -- and even trailing by as many as seven -- in the opening frame, the Mountaineers came out of the gates in the second half hitting on all cylinders.

Truck Bryant hit a pair of 3-point field goals, and Wellington Smith added another to key an 11-0 run in the first 3:07 of the period, giving West Virginia a 42-31 lead and its first significant breathing room of the contest.

That ran in stark contrast to the first half, when WVU hit only two of its 17 attempts from 3-point range. All told, head coach Bob Huggins' squad made only 12-of-37 field goals (32.4 percent) in the opening 20 minutes, while Loyola hit on 15 of its 26 shots (57.7 percent).

Some of those struggles may have been due to the absences of key starters Devin Ebanks and Joe Mazzulla.

Ebanks, a sophomore forward, was not in attendance at the contest as he dealt with "some personal issues," according to Huggins. While Mazzulla was dressed and on the bench for the first time since a shoulder injury (and subsequent surgery) forced him to take a redshirt last year, he did not enter the lineup.

Those absences led to some interesting lineups, particularly in the first half, as Huggins looked for any combination of players that would wake the Mountaineers from their seemingly unending early slumber.

"I think you've got a lot of guys who have got a lot of attention who probably aren't mature enough to handle it," said the third-year WVU head coach. "We're young."

"I think some of the younger guys, maybe things have come easier to them than they should have. And the reality is, we haven't won anything. We haven't done anything on the floor."

Those backups came through when it counted, powering the Mountaineers back into the contest after the visitors had claimed a 20-13 lead.

A lineup comprised of Jonnie West, Dan Jennings, John Flowers, Kevin Jones and Da'Sean Butler (who served as the point guard) keyed a 10-0 WVU run that gave Huggins and company a 23-20 advantage.

Jennings, who had struggled at stretches in both the team's open scrimmage and its exhibition win over Mountain State, was a major factor in the comeback.

He blocked a shot by Loyola's Brian Rudolph shortly after taking the floor. Shortly thereafter, the freshman forward grabbed an offensive rebound off a missed 3-point attempt by West. He attacked the rim and was fouled hard on the head by the Greyhounds' Jawaan Wright, causing his white sweatband to fly off his forehead.

Despite the rough contact, Jennings maintained control and put in the shot to the delight of a WVU Coliseum crowd that had, like the Mountaineers themselves, been somewhat lethargic before. Despite missing the ensuing free throw, WVU had drawn within two points and momentum had shifted.

This game recap presented by The Book Exchange

Huggins said that Jennings had endured a rough week in practice, saying that just three days ago witnesses to practice may have wondered if the freshman would stick around at WVU.

But after watching some tape of Eric Hicks, a former Huggins big man at Cincinnati, the forward had a renewed purpose -- to bring effort to the floor even at times when he didn't know exactly what his assignment was and to attack his responsibilities.

"That's what we expect from you," the head coach said he told Jennings.

That was the message Huggins gave to all of his reserves, who were forced into action by the Mountaineers' many injury and personal issues that held players out of the lineup.

"I told those guys in there, ‘I'm going to tell you guys something. If you can't produce for us, turn your scholarship in,'" Huggins said. "If we've got guys on scholarship that aren't good enough to play, they shouldn't be here. There's a responsibility that comes with it."

Despite the renewed purpose the home team began to play with when the reserves entered in the first half, Loyola never let its highly-ranked opposition pull away.

West Virginia's largest first half lead was a mere three points. The home squad was fortunate to be tied at the halftime intermission, 31-31, as Butler scored on a put-back at the buzzer after Jones' wild 3-point attempt had failed to even draw iron as the clock wound down.

West Virginia kept it close while the shooters tried to find their touch by pounding the offensive glass. The hosts picked up 11 caroms after missed shots in the opening half and converted them into 15 second-chance points, while Loyola managed only two offensive boards of its own during the same span.

Those shooting woes were quickly corrected out of the gates in the second half. WVU went on an 11-0 run to start the period, with Truck Bryant hitting a pair of treys and Wellington Smith accounting for another to key the surge.

After failing to gain any breathing room in the first half, Huggins' squad suddenly had a 42-31 lead only 3:07 into the second half.

The lead would steadily grow throughout the remainder of the contest. With the game in hand, the Mountaineers cruised the rest of the way to the victory, claiming their biggest lead of the game on Jennings' slam dunk just before the final buzzer.

Jennings just missed a double-double in his first collegiate game, tallying nine points and a game-high 12 rebounds. He added three blocks and a steal in only 16 minutes of action.

Senior forward Butler added a game-high 26 points to go with seven rebounds and five assists. He was one of four WVU players in double figures scoring, as Bryant had 15, Jones scored 14 and guard Casey Mitchell added 13.

Loyola was led by Shane Walker, who scored 14 points on an efficient 7-of-9 shooting from the floor. He had a game-high three steals, but turned the ball over six times himself.

Reserve Jamal Barney added 11 points in 20 minutes of action for the Greyhounds -- the only other Loyola player to score in double figures.

The victory was not without its share of losses for Huggins and company.

On top of the absence of Ebanks and Mazzulla, Flowers went out with 2:16 remaining in the first half with an apparent injury to "an ankle or a metatarsal -- I'm not sure," according to Huggins.

The forward was taken to the hospital, where X-rays came back negative. The head coach said Flowers returned to the Coliseum just after the game ended and would be fine for the team's next game, which comes next Tuesday against The Citadel in Charleston.



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