By Dave Hickman
MORGANTOWN - Once upon a time, Truck Bryant wouldn't have survived the kind of start he had to West Virginia's Big East opener against Villanova at the Coliseum Wednesday night. Truth is, he wouldn't have had the chance.
After all, in the opening minutes he turned the ball over with a bad pass on WVU's first possession, missed a pair of 3-point tries and was a big part of the Mountaineers' 3-for-12 shooting start and an early deficit against the Wildcats.
In an early time during Bryant's career, that might have earned him a prolonged spell in a seat somewhere behind Bob Huggins on WVU's bench. This time it earned him a spot there for all of 72 seconds. Those were the only 72 seconds he was off the floor.
For the rest of the evening, Bryant made his time on the floor count. By night's end he'd scored a career-high 34 points and sparked a WVU explosion in the game's final five minutes that gave the Mountaineers an 83-69 win over the Wildcats.
The difference between now and at other times during Bryant's career? Well, over the years Bryant has earned a certain level of trust from Huggins.
"I think I've paid my dues with Coach,'' Bryant said after shattering his previous career high of 27 points, set earlier this month against Miami. "I might still make mistakes and miss shots, but as long as I'm playing good defense he'll let me play.''
Wednesday night, Bryant was playing good defense and then some.
In addition to spending much of the night chasing Villanova standout Maalik Wayns on defense, Bryant also dropped in 21 second-half points, made four 3-pointers, had three assists, two steals and even blocked a shot.
"Truck Bryant was just outstanding. We had no answer for him,'' Villanova coach Jay Wright said after the Wildcats (7-6) lost for the sixth time in the last nine games. "We couldn't guard him man-to-man and when we went zone they did a great job of being patient and waiting until we lost him.''
Bryant was at his best when it counted the most. With just over five minutes to play, the score was tied at 63 after West Virginia had led by as many as six and Villanova by as many as five in a seesaw game. Bryant was fouled on a 3-point try and made two free throws to give WVU the lead for good.
The game changed dramatically, though, when Bryant missed a 3-pointer a few moments later.
That miss, though, was more than made up for when Bryant immediately stole the ball and got it to freshman Gary Browne for a 3-pointer. A few moments later Bryant hit a 3 of his own. Deniz Kilicli followed with a great back-door pass to Browne for another layup, Bryant hit a 10-footer and Browne stole the ball in the backcourt and converted a layup.
Suddenly it was 77-65 with two minutes to play and the game was all but in hand.
The surge had begun after that missed 3-pointer and the steal Bryant made to make up for it.
"Yeah, it was the big guy [Villanova center Mouphtaou Yarou] who got the rebound and tried to make the outlet pass,'' Bryant said. "When I saw that, I knew I had a chance. I love it when the big guys try to get it down the floor.''
By the time Browne made his steal and layup, West Virginia (10-3) had finished a 14-2 run and had won for the sixth time in the last seven games. WVU's only loss in that stretch was an overtime decision to unbeaten and No. 6 Baylor.
Kevin Jones added 13 points, Browne 11 and Kilicli 10 for the Mountaineers, who turned the ball over just seven times and forced 15 turnovers. That led to a 24-6 edge in points off turnovers.
Dominic Cheek and Wayns scored 20 each for Villanova.
Jones, the Big East leader in both scoring and rebounding, was held to just 13 points and seven rebounds and also sent a scare into the Mountaineers just 30 seconds into the second half when he went down in a scrum under the Villanova basket and stayed on the floor with a cut over his right eye. When he eventually was helped up and off the floor, he disappeared into the training room for a few minutes and West Virginia found out what life might be like without him. It wasn't pretty.
Villanova immediately went on a 7-0 run to take a 45-41 lead after WVU had led 40-36 at the half.
Jones came back quickly, though, and the Mountaineers went to a three-guard lineup that worked well. With Bryant hitting a pair of 3-pointers and Jabarie Hinds scoring on a three-point play and a 3-pointer, West Virginia regained the lead and led 61-55 at the eight-minute mark.
The Wildcats eventually tied it at 63 before WVU's game-winning surge.
The Mountaineers have no time to reflect on this one. They have just one day to prepare before facing Seton Hall at 9 p.m. Friday in Newark, N.J.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickm...@aol.com.
WVU 83, Villanova 69
Villanova (7-6, 0-1)
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