You can call West Virginia the comeback kids after the Mountaineers’ 19-point, 84-82 victory over Texas Saturday night. But West Virginia Coach Bob Huggins would rather just refer to his team as one that is beginning to understand just what it could be capable of.
A question was posed to Huggins following the 13th-ranked Mountaineers victory over the 12th-ranked Longhorns asking the head coach if his team was embracing being able to pull of comeback victories, suggesting that the players seem to be happy with that accomplishment.
“I’m happy they are (enjoying it), because I’m not,” Huggins said in response. “But I think they understood that we were about as bad as you can be, I think, in the first half. This group, generally, when they’re challenged they’ll step up and meet the challenge.”
Huggins was spot on in two assessments in that response.
No. 1, his West Virginia team couldn’t have played much worse in the first half.
Texas shot 70% from the field in the first half, which led to 53 first-half points.
No. 2, the Mountaineers stepped up to the challenge when they held the Longhorns to just 37.9% shooting and just 29 second-half points.
Huggins told media members that they likely wouldn’t have been able to print his halftime speech. But he did give some hints as to what went on.
It wasn’t focusing on how to stop Texas. Rather, it was on how to ignite his team.
The Mountaineers spent halftime talking about themselves and why they weren't doing what they were supposed to do. The speech included addressing a lack of enthusiasm, having each other’s backs and the like, Huggins said.
The way WVU put that plan into action was playing a more aggressive man-to-man defense, one that almost mirrored a type of matchup zone defense.
“We just did our job. It was a bit different than what usually do in man-to-man, but it was man-to-man. It worked,” junior forward Emmitt Matthews Jr. said. “We got them to take some shots that were questionable. I think in the first half we didn't get those rebounds and gave them second-chance buckets. That’s what we took away that second half.”
Beyond that, heads-up plays — like Taz Sherman drawing Courtney Ramey’s fifth foul late in the game — sealed the deal.
Plays like that down the stretch have been something that Huggins has been trying to get his team to understand the importance of.
“It started earlier with losing to Oklahoma with guys not making the right plays — or making winning plays is what we call ‘em,” sophomore guard Miles “Deuce” McBride said. “It’s game time, and when it comes down to game time you guys gotta be even more locked in and even more focused to what’s going on. And you’ve got to come up with plays to win.”
West Virginia has turned those winning plays into five comeback wins when trailing by more than 10 points this season.
It has to be a mentality, even if Huggins would prefer the team not be down double digits to begin with. It’s become familiar enough to stick, maybe.
“I think they went up 18 and we went into a timeout and (Assistant) Coach (Erik) Martin said, ‘We’re gonna win this game. It’s gonna be the hardest thing we’ve had to do, but we’re gonna win this game.’ And we did just that,” Matthews said. “I think that’s just the story of us. We’re a resilient bunch. We just love basketball, and if we get down we’re going to fight out way back.”
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