MORGANTOWN - It seems like one of those coaching tactics that might occasionally work in a motivational sense, but seldom does it stand up as a great on-the-floor tactical maneuver.
Then again, when Bob Huggins benched his entire West Virginia starting five just 24 seconds into the second half of a game with pesky Robert Morris Tuesday night at the Coliseum, he seemed to know exactly what he was doing.
"You're going to be shocked, but it honestly has worked for me every time,'' Huggins would say later. "Well, I didn't do it my first couple of years at Cincinnati because I didn't have anybody on the bench. But after that it always worked.''
Well, it certainly worked Tuesday night in West Virginia's 82-49 rout of Robert Morris.
After not only failing to put the outmatched Colonials away in the first half but allowing them to start the second with a quick 3-pointer to draw within a point, Huggins stopped the game, benched his starting five and then watched their backups take complete control.
Over the next five-plus minutes, Joe Mazzulla, Deniz Kilicli, Dalton Pepper, Cam Thoroughman and Johnny West outscored Robert Morris 15-4. When Huggins did permit a few of his starters back on the floor to play with the reserves, they combined for what would eventually become a 50-18 run to end the game.
Indeed, as both a motivational and a strategic move, it worked perfectly.
"I was just tired of watching guys not play,'' Huggins said of the move that benched Kevin Jones, Casey Mitchell, John Flowers, Truck Bryant and first-time starting center Dan Jennings. "We were just so stagnant. We didn't make hard cuts, we didn't rebound, we stood around.
"I don't know about you, but I'm tired of seeing it.''
How much motivational value the game was worth to at least three starters is still up for debate. Mitchell and Jones, WVU's top two scorers coming into the game, and Jennings never returned. Each finished with six points and none played more than 16 minutes.
The move allowed some reserves to shine and for one in particular, Kilicli, to perhaps re-emerge. The 6-foot-9 Turkish center had a monster game - albeit against much smaller competition - with 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting in just 14 minutes. He simply overpowered RMU's inside people and did it with what appeared to be attitude.
"Today I just thought, 'I don't care. Somebody's got to do something,''' Kilicli said. "If nothing else I wanted to give energy.''
With Kilicli and Mazzulla leading the way, those backups were nearly flawless over the 5:21 that Huggins allowed them to play without substitution. It completely turned the game around when that group combined to make 6-of-7 shots and force Robert Morris into four turnovers and 2-of-7 shooting. After that the score was 47-35 and West Virginia was on its way.
It didn't stop after Huggins allowed a few of his regulars - Bryant and Flowers - to get off the bench, either. At one point West Virginia (6-2) went through a period where it shot 15-of-18 from the floor, had assists on 12 of the baskets and committed just two turnovers. The Mountaineers were just as good defensively, holding RMU to 3-of-16 shooting after that opening 3-pointer and forcing six turnovers.
"We weren't playing hard and he had to do something,'' said Bryant, who wound up with 12 points, six assists and three steals. "And it worked.''
Flowers was the other starter allowed to come back on the floor and he made the most of the chance, finishing with 12 points, 10 rebounds, two assists and two steals. It was the senior's first double-double. Pepper also had a solid game with nine points, four assists and four rebounds.
Robert Morris (3-5) got 11 points each from Yann Charles and Caron Williams.
How West Virginia got into the position of leading RMU by just one in the second half was pretty much a lack of any execution in the first half. There were times in the first half when WVU simply overpowered Robert Morris inside and controlled the game, but too often the Mountaineers couldn't hold onto the ball long enough to run anything to get the ball to the inside players. In one awful stretch West Virginia turned the ball over on four straight possessions. In the game's first 12 minutes, WVU committed eight turnovers.
Meanwhile, Robert Morris wasn't shooting the ball particularly well, but the Colonials were at least getting off shots. With Charles, Williams and Velton Jones combining for 21 points, RMU never trailed by more than six points in the first half and was down just 32-28 at the break.
With final exams and the Christmas break approaching, West Virginia's schedule begins to spread out for the next three weeks. The Mountaineers next play Sunday night against Duquesne at Pittsburgh's new Consol Energy Center, then have nearly a week off before playing host to Cleveland State a week from Saturday.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickm...@aol.com.
WVU 82, RMU 49
Robert Morris (3-5)
Player FG FT R A P
Yann Charles 4-8 3-5 1 0 11
Russell Johnson 1-10 2-2 8 0 5
Velton Jones 3-12 2-4 0 0 8
Coron Williams 4-10 0-0 1 3 11