Mike Casazza: Huggins’ message to Mountaineers: Find a way
AUSTIN, Texas -- The severity of a game day, the mood that has defined and carried Bob Huggins and his teams so many times through 31 seasons, was punctured Wednesday.
The West Virginia coach had a text message and the words from Joe Roberts, his team manager when Huggins was in charge at Cincinnati. It brought Huggins back to the 1997-98 season, when the Bearcats were trying to replace Darnell Burton and Danny Fortson and weren't doing too well, what with a 4-2 record that didn't match preseason expectations.
On the day WVU would dare to change its season by erasing a 13-point deficit in the second half to win 57-53 at Texas in overtime, Huggins would first be reminded of what he told that 1998 team.
It was a simple message, one that one of the athletic department's custodians found on a sign in the woodshop. It would hang above the door that took the Bearcats from their locker room to their court and eventually the team decided to take it on the road with them, too.
Every time they left their sanctuary, they'd tap the sign, a final prompt to play the way the words insisted. They took the advice and won 10 straight games that season. Twice. The final record was 27-6 and Huggins will forever assert Jarrod West's bank-shot 3-pointer that sent WVU to the Sweet Sixteen kept his team from doing something special.
The cell phone would go back in the coach's pocket Wednesday. He'd later lead the Mountaineers through 45 definitive minutes of a game they couldn't win, but wouldn't lose.
"Our motto coming into this game was 'Find a Way,' " said Kevin Noreen, who started for the second time this season and had 13 rebounds and an enormous 3-pointer late after his team started 0-for-14 from 3-point range. "Coach Huggins gave it to us straight in his pregame speech. Just find a way. That's what we did."
That message that hung above the locker room door at Cincinnati? The reminder Roberts sent Huggins? The very thing Huggins told his team Wednesday, which was only two days after Huggins said the Mountaineers hadn't had anybody step forward and do what needed to be done in the absence of Kevin Jones?
Find a way.
For 13 games, Huggins said this WVU team didn't behave like one of his teams. After the 14th game, a win that left the Mountaineers 8-6 overall and 1-1 in the Big 12, he finally saw things trending the right way.
"We really weren't my team before," he said late Wednesday night. "We didn't really compete the way we needed to compete. I thought we competed hard today. We rebounded the ball. We're going to miss shots. We've got to figure out a way to get it back."
It was the toughest and most resolute the Mountaineers had collectively played this season. They led early and went ice cold soon thereafter. They were again slow to start the second half and trailed 42-29.
There wasn't the feeling they would go meekly off the floor and then board a quiet charter flight back home - and that was only obvious because it was so strange from a group that had collapsed or been blown out a few times this season.
"We knew it would be a nasty plane ride home and we'd be 0-2 in the league," said Jabarie Hinds, who ignored his own struggles to make a 3-pointer late in regulation. "We didn't want anything to do with any of that."
The end was defined by everything before it, though, from the text message Huggins shared with his team before the game to the starting lineup that didn't feature Aaric Murray or Deniz Kilicli. The starts instead went to Noreen, who Huggins might trust more than anyone else on the team, and Dominique Rutledge, who was averaging 18.6 minutes the previous five games and was onto something early before getting two fouls in rapid succession.
At the end, it was Murray with 12 points and 10 rebounds and Kilicli scoring all eight of his points in the final 12:20 of regulation.
"I don't care, man," he said. "I play the game. I'm not into that, 'You're a senior. You've got to start. You've got to play.' I don't believe in that. I play when the opportunity comes."
To complete the rally, WVU needed a 3 from freshman Eron Harris, who minutes earlier missed a simple layup. The 3 came at the end of a possession that featured a series of passes and cuts to get to the destination Huggins let his players determine on the floor.
"It wasn't even a play," Harris said. "That was instinct. I ran the baseline. I saw an opening. They passed it and made one more and then one more and I made the shot. I saw it coming."
The entire second half and overtime was played without point guard Juwan Staten, inarguably the one teammates look to in tight sports. He was unreliable on offense and defense in the first half and Huggins made him pay with playing time.
"It's my team," Huggins said. "It's not his. We talk a lot about being on the same page. I wrote the book. He's going to be on the same page as everyone else or he's going to continue to sit over there."
When Texas tied the game with a 3 in the final seconds of regulation and the Mountaineers couldn't even counter with a desperation heave, it was Staten who fired off his chair and met his teammates as they staggered to the bench.
In overtime, the Mountaineers maneuvered through four straight missed free throws to start and then one possession that lasted 1:47 and featured four missed shots. It was ugly, but it wasn't enough to derail the momentum they take into Saturday's 1:30 p.m. home game against No. 18 Kansas State (12-2, 1-0).
WVU is 0-2 against ranked teams. The Wildcats are No. 39 in the RPI, but the Mountaineers feel better than ever before about getting the first win in six tries against someone in the RPI top 100.
"This is a big one for us," Harris said.
"The idea at West Virginia is rebounding and defense. We played defense and we rebounded better than we have in our entire life. Now you hope you can carry it over to Saturday and to the next game and to the next game."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com.