At virtually no point in West Virginia's 82-66 win over VMI Saturday night at the Civic Center was there more than a shadow of a doubt what the outcome would be. It just never occurred to anyone among the crowd of 12,367 that the Mountaineers would do anything but win going away.
Include Bob Huggins among those.
"No,'' he said succinctly when asked if he ever wavered. "I thought we could ratchet it down when we needed to.''
That the Mountaineers finally did ratchet the win down, though, was beside the point. Up until then, boy, did they go out of their way to keep things interesting.
Playing without starting point guard Truck Bryant and backup center Dan Jennings - Huggins stopped short of saying they were suspended, but they did not dress - and then struggling with foul trouble, shooting woes and everything else imaginable, West Virginia finally pulled away in the final 71/2 minutes.
It was like a full two hours in a dentist's chair without Novocain.
"Yeah, it was kind of bizarre,'' said senior forward Kevin Jones, who missed more than his share of bunny shots but still ended up with 22 points. "But remember, we had even more bizarre things happen last year.''
Indeed. A year ago the Mountaineers played stretches without suspended Devin Ebanks, an injured Bryant or other strange combinations. There were times a year ago when the Mountaineers played five forwards at the same time. And it worked.
Against VMI, though, with Bryant not dressed and Joe Mazzulla in early foul trouble, somewhere there was a collective cry for indefinitely suspended freshman point guard Noah Cottrill. That wasn't happening, though, so before the game's second media timeout, walk-ons Kenny Ross and Craig Carey had made appearances.
Predictably, West Virginia's game suffered. The Mountaineers tried to get the ball inside and use a decided size advantage, but that worked only occasionally. There were more 3-pointers made during the youth basketball exhibition at halftime (1) than by WVU in the first half. VMI led by as many as three points and only a late run enabled West Virginia to lead 38-30 at the break.
"I think VMI kind of got us into their game a little bit in the first half,'' said Mazzulla, who watched all but the first four minutes of it from the bench after picking up two fouls. "The second half we were much more controlled.''
It paid off. Eventually. Casey Mitchell, who had his third straight big scoring game with 25 points, fueled a run that ran the margin up to a dozen, but VMI's long-range shooting got the margin back to 64-60.
After that, everything the Mountaineers scored was in the paint or on free throws and the margins was as high as 80-63.
But that hardly wiped out the misery that was trying to make things work in the game's first 33 minutes.
"I think we were just rushing things,'' Mitchell said. "We knew we were bigger and stronger than they were, but we were missing layups. And there was no reason for it other than we weren't being patient.''
Well, there was at least a partial reason, and that was the absence of Bryant and Jennings. Without going into specifics, Huggins addressed the issue after the game and sounded every bit the coach who was waiting for two guys to buy into practicing and doing things the way he wants them done.
"I'm going to coach guys that want to learn,'' Huggins said. "We have guys all the time that want to take days off.''
Huggins pointed, in contrast, to the performances of Mitchell and 6-foot-11 freshman Kevin Noreen, who against VMI played 14 minutes and had seven points, five rebounds and three assists. Mitchell was an afterthought last season and is now averaging more than 21 points.
"Casey made himself a player because he listened,'' Huggins said. "Kevin Noreen was all but buried on the bench. And I think we can all agree, where would this team be without Casey Mitchell and Kevin Noreen?''
Again, Huggins refused to call the absence of the two players a suspension, so whether their absence continues when the Mountaineers (4-1) play host to American Wednesday at the Coliseum remains to be seen.
VMI (5-1) suffered its first loss after starting a season 5-0 for the first time since 1921. The Keydets got 18 points each from Rodney Glasgow and Keith Gabriel. VMI made nine 3-pointers in 34 attempts.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickm...@aol.com.
Player FG FT R A P
Stan Okoye 2-8 2-4 6 1 6
Ron Burks 1-8 2-2 4 3 5