MORGANTOWN - Perhaps the light bulb has been permanently switched on where Aaric Murray is concerned.
No, that's not a sure thing. After all, West Virginia's 6-foot-10 junior has been here before, lighting up stat sheets one day only to disappear mentally the next. But for two games, at least, it appears that the message has come through loud and clear.
It certainly seemed that way again Saturday, when the transfer from LaSalle scored 23 points, grabbed eight rebounds and added four assists, three steals and a block as the Mountaineers pulled away from Radford to win 72-62 in front of 7,073 at the Coliseum.
That followed a 12-point, 10-rebound, five-block, four-assist game against Oakland three days earlier. And that followed a literal no-show the game before that, when Murray wasn't even taken on a trip to Brooklyn to face No. 3 Michigan.
And the bottom line seems to be that neither of those last two performances would have been possible had it not been for what happened the game before.
"I definitely learned my lesson,'' Murray said of his one-game suspension. "I don't want that to happen again.''
Well, the Mountaineers don't want it to happen again, either. After all, were it not for Murray they might not have won either of those games.
"Aaric's been great,'' point guard Juwan Staten said after the Mountaineers (6-5) climbed back above .500 with Saturday's win. "And as long as he stays hungry, he'll be great.''
There were certainly other reasons West Virginia was able to handle Radford (5-7) Saturday. Once again, the Mountaineers started slowly. They had eight turnovers before they scored their fifth field goal, trailed most of the first half and were still behind, 49-48, with nine minutes to play.
Throwing a 1-3-1 zone against the Highlanders down the stretch turned the game around. Radford went more than four minutes without scoring, West Virginia went on a 12-2 run and that changed the game.
"I don't think it's usually effective for a whole game,'' coach Bob Huggins said of the 1-3-1. "But it's a way to change the pace.''
The Mountaineers also refined their half-court offense in the second half, too, doing a better job of spreading the floor and opening up space in the middle. Not only was Murray able to thrive inside that way, but Staten and Gary Browne made a living driving to the basket.
West Virginia also made pretty good use of the free-throw line, hitting 25 of 35 attempts. They shot the ball reasonably well (45.8 percent) for the second game in a row, held a slim rebounding edge and forced 17 turnovers. And after committing those eight turnovers in the first 12 minutes the Mountaineers had only six more in the final 28.
But it was still Murray who provided the biggest difference. On a day when no other Mountaineer scored in double figures (Browne had nine points, Staten eight and Dominique Rutledge had eight points and eight rebounds), Murray seemed always to be there.
Until the final stretch run when Huggins generally settled on a 1-3-1-friendly lineup of Staten, Browne, Murray, Rutledge and Keaton Miles, he had spent virtually the entire game trying to find the right combination. He played all 13 scholarship players in the first half, and save for two players no one played more than 22 minutes. Staten played 31 and Murray played 38 of 40.
And that from a guy who two games ago wasn't even traveling with the team, in part because of a lackadaisical attitude and, in perhaps greater part, because he showed up late one day.
"That's just a lack of respect,'' Huggins said of Murray's tardiness. "If I didn't take guys on trips for not playing hard, I'd be playing my managers.''
Well, Murray's focus has not been an issue for two games now and the Mountaineers are better for it.
"We all know he's a talented kid,'' Huggins said. "He's learning how to play hard for a longer period of time. And he's trying harder since we got back from Michigan.''
BRIEFLY: The two wins enable the Mountaineers to feel a little bit better about themselves heading into the holiday break. Huggins will let the team go for a few days and reassemble after Christmas.
The team's next game is a week from today against Eastern Kentucky, which will bring a 10-2 record into the game. The Colonels, coached by former WVU assistant Jeff Neubauer, began the season 9-0 before losing to Illinois and North Carolina A&T.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickm...@aol.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.
M FG FT R A P
Kion Brown 13 2-3 0-0 3 0 4
Javonte Green 33 6-14 5-6 10 2 17
Rashun Davis 33 3-8 1-1 2 7 7
Blake Smith 31 5-9 2-2 5 1 13