MORGANTOWN - For better or worse, it didn't take long for West Virginia fans to catch a glimpse of the future in Friday night's season opener.
Nine freshmen dressed for their first official game with the Mountaineers and, as they will likely have to do all year, made significant contributions as WVU gutted out a narrow 78-71 win over Oral Roberts at a half-full Coliseum.
The win was far from perfect as pressure from the Golden Eagles gave West Virginia fits. Foul problems also proved more than costly for WVU, which narrowly escaped dropping its first home opener since 1997, when the team fell to Virginia Tech. West Virginia was outrebounded 37-24 by ORU.
All this allowed Oral Roberts to whittle away at a 14-point second-half deficit and come within two missed potential game-tying 3-pointers inside the final minute.
"It's a way better feeling than last week but we still have a lot of work to do," senior forward Kevin Jones said, alluding to last Friday's exhibition loss to Northern Kentucky. "The guys are improving. Yesterday's practice was the best practice we've had since the season started. We're going in the right direction we just need guys to play with a lot of urgency.
"At the end of the game we had a lot of stupid turnovers, including myself. We just need to grow as a team. I feel like this team has a major upside."
As of Thursday afternoon, West Virginia coach Bob Huggins had yet to name his starting five and it was obvious the coach was still looking for answers throughout much of the game. For the record, Jabarie Hinds and Keaton Miles got the starting nod, but 11 of the Mountaineers' 13 active players saw action, including 10 in the first half alone.
In the Mountaineers' exhibition loss to Northern Kentucky, seniors Darryl Bryant and Jones combined for 46 of the team's 74 points. While Jones was able to contribute heavily again against Oral Roberts, foul trouble kept Bryant on the sideline throughout most of the half, thrusting the youngsters even more into the spotlight.
Hinds and Gary Browne were thrown into the fire when Bryant picked up his second foul on a questionable pushing call just four minutes into the game. Bryant re-entered at the 7:14 mark of the first half, only to pick up his third foul a minute and a half later on the offensive end, and was met with some choice words from Huggins on his way to the bench.
Bryant logged just six minutes in the opening half, but on the positive side he got a good look at his younger teammates.
"I know I can't put myself in that position," Bryant said. "I just feel bad I kind of let our freshmen out to dry, but overall I thought the freshmen did a great job tonight. They're still learning of course, they're young so it's going to take a little time.
"I know we didn't play that well tonight but I liked the energy we had as a team."
Even when Bryant came back after the break, he played off the ball as Hinds and Browne took over the point guard duties.
Jones was the rock for the Mountaineers, but for the most part, WVU's freshmen were solid. Hinds and Browne combined for 18 points and 11 assists and had just seven turnovers, largely in Bryant's absence. Aaron Brown also contributed 10 points.
But at times the offense didn't have a discernable flow and there were some expected growing pains, as well including some silly turnovers and missed fast-break opportunities. The Golden Eagle press really gave the young Mountaineers, and even Jones and Bryant, problems late in the game.
"They played like freshmen," Huggins said. "They played really well at times, played really hard at times, and then they took plays off and weren't very assertive."
Another of West Virginia's precious few experienced players, junior Deniz Kilicli, found staying on the floor a challenge as he picked up his second and third fouls in the first three minutes of the second half.
Fouls hampered the Mountaineers, especially after the break. The Golden Eagles took 30 free throws compared to 17 for West Virginia.
Unlike the exhibition against Northern Kentucky, the Mountaineers led most of the way. With the game tied at 8, West Virginia went on a 14-2 spurt and led by as many as 14 in the second half before Oral Roberts cut the deficit to just one point late.
Huggins will take the win but was nowhere near satisfied.
"We played 1-3 with a chaser, which I've never seen," Huggins said dryly. "We survived."
To his credit, Oral Roberts' Dominique Morrison wouldn't let the Golden Eagles go quietly when WVU built a lead of 59-45. The 6-foot-6 senior forward played above his height, going for a team-high 21 points, including his team's first eight of the second half. Michael Craion was next with 18 points followed by Warren Niles with 14 and Steven Roundtree with 11.
Jones paced the Mountaineers with 20 points while Bryant scrambled to add 17 and Kilicli 11.
West Virginia will host Kent State at 10 a.m. on Tuesday in a game televised by ESPN.
Reach Ryan Pritt at 304-348-7948 or ryan.pr...@wvgazette.com.
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