ANAHEIM, Calif. – Players of the Game in West Virginia's win over Texas A&M in the second round of the 76 Classic.
Devin Ebanks' two setals in the final minute lead to a West Virginia win and our Player of the Game honors in the 73-66 win over Texas A&M here at the 76 Classic on Friday.
Making his first appearance since taking a leave from the team for "personal reasons," the sophomore scored 14 points – including making his first two jumpers upon entering the game four minutes in – and gave the No. 8 Mountaineers (4-0) some much-needed interior ability on both ends. He defended well in the post, limiting the scoring ability of A&M's Bryan Davis, and grabbed nine rebounds, eight on defense. But the biggest pair of plays made came in the final minute with West Virginia ahead just 68-63. EBanks twice stole the ball in the backcourt from usually sure-handed point guard Donald Sloan. His first strip led to a dunk and the resulting three-point play. His second led to a driving lay-up attempt on which he was fouled. He made both free throws to seal the game and send WVU to its fourth straight in-season tournament final.
"I thought he was pretty good," West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins said.
That was an understatement. Ebanks gave the Mountaineers a sizeable psychological and emotional boost. He said he asked his teammates if they wanted him back, and they all said they needed him. There won't be an issue the rest of the season, Ebanks said.
"I felt a little winded in the first two minutes," he said. "After the timeout and (the two jump shots), I was in a groove after that. I was back to my old self."
Da'Sean Butler. The senior likely had the most important game all-around. He scored 17 points on five of 11 shooting and had five assists. His threes midway through the second half opened up the inside of Texas A&M's defense and gave the Mountaineers the lead for good. He was solid on the defensive end, where he had four of his five rebounds overall. Butler was also Ebanks' biggest supporter on the floor, and both showed maturity when John Flowers and Cam Thoroughman became increasingly agitated by calls or no-calls from officials. Butler also remained calm emotionally while being held often and at one point dragged to the ground on a what amounted to a tackle attempt by an A&M player. It was a showcase by both of true leadership in play and action.
"Nobody in the country has two forwards like we do," Huggins said. "No other pair of forwards can do what these guys can do. Shoot it, pass it. I've said it before. There are no others like our guys."
Wellington Smith. The forward hit two three-pointers in the first half that allowed the Mountaineers to keep pace with an Aggie team that had screened and curt them up in the first 20 minutes. Smith started, but like the rest of the team didn't get into the flow much in the first 10 minutes. But he did make two threes in the final four minutes, the first with WVU down 31-25 and Texas A&M threatening to enlarge the margin over the final minutes. His second three brought West Virginia within 32-31 with 3:20 left, and the Aggies managed to add just another point to their lead by the half.
Bob Huggins. The coach earned his money in this one. The veteran coach made the call to go to five-out sets to start the second half. That opened the inside some when WVU began to make shots. He also interchanged players until he found the best mix to challenge A&M – which happened to be all veterans. Huggins worked the refs from the very start to the point where he was badgering them every play in the second half. It led to Aggie head coach Mark Turgeon and the bench calling for a technical. His blunt honesty was great after the game as well.
"I think we suck right now," he said at one point. When asked if he had talked defensive issues at halftime, he said "Yeah, we did talk about that. Had a nice, long conversation about that as a matter of fact."