Huggins, fans ask question as end of the road nears
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Driving from Charleston to WVU's Coliseum, I began to wonder what exactly I was doing. Sure, it was the Mountaineers' last regular-season hoops game and senior day and all, but, um ... so? The home team was 13-17 heading into the game. The visiting team had no stars of note, unless you count Will Clyburn, whom I did vote as a second-team All-Big 12 pick.
Guess it was curiosity. Kind of like watching the start of a car wreck - which I saw in person in the season opener at Spokane, Wash., when Gonzaga pounded WVU 84-50 - and continuing to watch until the screeching, skidding and flying gravel stops. You want to see if the car is saved or totaled.
After a half on Saturday, I was convinced of the latter. Zero improvement. The Mountaineers were on pace to lose at home by 48 to Iowa State.
The hosts, however, actually rallied. Jabarie Hinds actually came alive with 19 points. WVU whittled a 27-point deficit down to four with 48 ticks left.
Even big man Aaric Murray came alive, breathing hope into the 9,413 in attendance. He had 11 points, a few rebounds and three big blocks in just 16 minutes of playing time.
Then he fouled out, and what happened immediately after is significant.
I'm not talking about WVU's eventual 83-74 loss. I'm not even talking about Deniz Kilicli's two killer mistakes (a missed layup and subsequent foul on a 3-point shot) after replacing Murray.
The reference is to the interaction between WVU coach Bob Huggins and Murray. After Murray had thrilled the crowd before fouling out with 2:22 remaining, Huggins slapped the center on the back in a "good job" sort of way.
Then Huggins reversed field. He turned back, grabbed Murray's arm and pulled him back.
"I asked him," Huggins said afterward, "why he didn't play like that all the time."
Perfect question for Murray. Perfect question for Hinds. Perfect question for a team that outscored Iowa State 54-39 in the second half - and lost by nine.
"In the second half," said senior Matt Humphrey, "we did stuff we practice every day and it worked. We were finally fired up to do it."
Bizarre, right? (Finally?) Humphrey, though, was worth a listen. He's now played his last game for the third time. He's also played at Oregon and Boston College. He has a unique perspective.
"Regardless of how the season went, none of us were quitters," Humphrey said. "I know I'm not. [WVU] will get better, man. You know [the Mountaineers will] get better."
"It's a level of excellence here. Coach Hugs is one of the best in the world. He demands perfection. Because he does, West Virginia basketball won't have a year like this again."
Now switch gears. Absorb the perspective of freshman Eron Harris, one of WVU's few bright spots this season.
"Huggins wants it to go back to where it was," Harris said. "He wants it back where he established it. That's where it's going to go."
Finally, take in the perspective of Kilicli, who was popular and head-scratching at the same time during his career.
If you wonder why the guy was popular, well, here's a couple quotes for the road, addressing his senior day.
"It was a really hard moment for me," Kilicli said of the pregame ceremony. "I don't think I've ever seen Hugs cry. That's what I'll take from this."
He exhaled in his very last home press conference comment as a WVU player.
"I met so many people that inspired me here and made me so much better," he said. "Hugs ... when you're 17, 19 years old, you need a guy like that to whip your ass. He made me a better person. I understand how valuable it is to be tough. Now I understand all he's been saying. Because of that, I'll be a better husband, friend and worker. Because of Hugs and this state ... coal miners drive to come watch us play, man."
Back, though, to the topic at hand. This team. This 13-18 team. And why it couldn't play like the second half of Saturday's game all the time.
"You know, there was nothing special about our Final Four team talent-wise," Kilicli said. "We worked hard. Now, we had three pros from that team and Devin [Ebanks] had God-given talent. But nobody even knew who Da'Sean [Butler] was when he was a sophomore. [Kevin Jones] worked hard. Even now he's going from [the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers] to the [Developmental League], back and forth.
"But when Da' went down [with a knee injury against Duke in the Final Four] that was the worst thing that's happened to me in my career. That's how I felt. That's how we felt about each other as a team.
"You can talk about lifting and running and all that. But when you have a will and purpose of a team, you've got Final Four potential. This year, we didn't have that."
It's now up to Huggins to restore that old classic.
Reach Mitch Vingle at 304-348-4827, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/MitchVingle.