WVU freshman Watkins lights up Civic Center
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- WEST VIRGINIA guards Eron Harris and Terry Henderson wore bright yellow, neon-like socks in the Mountaineers' rivalry game against Marshall Saturday night at Charleston's Civic Center.
But the glow of those socks didn't compare to the fire in the face of WVU coach Bob Huggins with 11:33 remaining in the Capital Classic.
Desperately seeking a spark, Huggins had inserted freshman big man Brandon Watkins, who didn't play a minute in the team's last outing at home against Gonzaga. But at that moment, Huggins lit into one of his best friend's nephews.
"We just came out of a timeout to run a set and he's not even on the right side of the floor," Huggins said afterward.
The coach got his freshman right. The freshman got his team right. And the Mountaineers rallied late to defeat Marshall, 74-64, before a nice crowd of 11,038.
There were the usual trappings. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and Sen. Joe Manchin were there. The crowd was ready to explode, on both sides.
But this Classic was less than classic. There was little flow, especially through the first 30 minutes. WVU turned the ball over 16 times in the game. Marshall tossed the ball away 15 times and clanked on 14 of its free throws.
Watkins, though, provided a nice story - especially for those in the Kanawha Valley.
See, after converting a field-goal attempt, he pointed to the sky. It was for Norman Hoover, a former St. Albans resident who recently passed away.
Although Watkins hit Morgantown from Decatur, Ga., his uncle is ex-Mountaineer and current television commentator Warren Baker, a close friend of Huggins. Baker's wife, Ann, is the daughter of Hoover.
"I have a lot of family members in the Charleston area," Watkins said. "Ann's dad was a big West Virginia fan. When I scored, I pointed up for him."
Hoover would have been proud. After doing enough to earn a second-half start, Watkins recorded a double-double with 12 points and 11 rebounds to help lift WVU. He was 6 of 7 shooting and added two blocks and two steals. He fouled but twice. And he was named the game's MVP.
"Brilliant coaching move," Huggins deadpanned.
Brilliant, maybe, but odd considering Watkins didn't play a lick against Gonzaga.
"It's hard to play him because we can't run anything with him," Huggins said. "But he scores around the rim and changes shots. When you don't have anyone who can change things around the rim, [opponents are] going to score on you."
Watkins might have also changed WVU's season. Had the Mountaineers lost, they would have fallen to 6-5 with Purdue dead ahead and the Big 12 schedule two games down the road.
"If we'd have lost," Watkins said, "it would have really hurt our season."
Instead, the Mountaineers avoided a three-game losing steak and moved to 7-4.
Give Huggins credit. With 3:50 left in the game, he was pinned with his last timeout when a player called it fighting for possession of a loose ball. He made the timeout count by calling for a Juwan Staten clearout. Staten delivered a bucket that gave the Mountaineers their first lead.
Staten was terrific in the end. He finished with 19 points.
But Watkins was the difference maker. After Huggins lit into him, he scored on a putback to keep West Virginia - desperately trying to take its first lead - in the game.
Later, on a Staten drive, he called for the ball, received it and scored. He then had another putback to keep the game close at 60-58. The plays set up WVU's rally.
"I had to prove myself," Watkins said. "I didn't get in at all against Gonzaga."
"I was really down. I thought I was going to get in ... But Coach Huggins said I wasn't doing my assignments. Coach [Erik] Martin told me if I don't really work hard now I won't play. And he told me this was an opportunity. Next year, Elijah [Macon] and them will be playing. He told me this is my opportunity to show what I can do."
On Saturday, anyway, he took that opportunity.
"It's what they recruited me for," Watkins said. "They told me to rebound, play defense and, when I get the ball, make a good move."
Harris, meanwhile, glowed like his socks when talking about his teammate.
"I've seen that in him from way back," said the guard. "Like in the summer. I've seen a lot better. There's a lot to see."
Reach Mitch Vingle at 304-348-4827, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/MitchVingle.