Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

College Sports

December 10, 2013

West Virginia hosts Gonzaga, seeks much-needed marquee win

MORGANTOWN — West Virginia University coach Bob Huggins knows his team missed a couple of big opportunities to put itself back on the college basketball map and earn some early resumé builders for postseason play over the last few weeks.

The Mountaineers (6-3) had to dig out of a big early hole and couldn’t quite get back in the end, falling to No. 10 Wisconsin 70-63 on Nov. 27 in Mexico, a game many WVU supporters felt should have been a victory.

Nine days later, Huggins’ team put itself in a similar spot, falling behind by a large margin early only to see a late-game run fall short in an 80-71 loss on the road against an undefeated Missouri team.

Today’s opportunity will come at home, and Huggins knows his team can’t let another chance slip through the cracks when No. 20 Gonzaga (8-1) visits the WVU Coliseum for a 9 p.m. showdown on ESPN2.

“I think we’ve gotten a whole lot better,” Huggins said Monday as his team ran through a final practice session. “Obviously, there may be a game or two that we look back and say we should have won, but a lot of that’s youth and inexperience.”

The Mountaineers are also playing for some revenge.

The 2011-12 season ended with a 77-54 loss to 10th-seeded Gonzaga in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament in Pittsburgh and, eight months later, WVU began the 2012-13 campaign with an 84-50 loss to the Bulldogs in Spokane, Wash.

That was the beginning of the worst season in Huggins’ long coaching career, a 13-19 finish.

“I didn’t play a lot, because I didn’t have much of a role,” said WVU sophomore guard Eron Harris, who’s averaging 18.9 points and 1.7 assists per game for the Mountaineers, thinking back to last year’s season opener. “I just remember (the Bulldogs) making a lot of shots, and they played pretty fluid.”

This year’s Gonzaga Club also has plenty of offensive weapons. The Bulldogs’ .549 field goal percentage is the best in the country, and the 90 points per game they’re scoring ranks fifth in the land.

Junior guard Kevin Pangos is averaging 19.8 points and 4.3 rebounds per game, while senior center Sam Dower is scoring 13 points and grabbing 7.2 boards each time out.

“They’re a typical Gonzaga team,” said Huggins. “They’ve got three really good perimeter guys. They’ve done a good job bringing in transfers that fit their needs.”

This year’s WVU team, he believes, is better prepared to match up with the Zags.

“We have more guys that can make shots,” said Huggins, who has watched junior guard Juwan Staten score 16.3 points and dish out 7.2 assists per game, while freshman forward Devin Williams has averaged 10 points and 7.9 rebounds in the paint. “What they did to us in Pittsburgh (in the 2012 NCAA Tournament) is they did a great job of taking the things that we relied on with (Kevin Jones) and took them away.

“When other guys don’t make shots, it makes it awfully hard. I think we have more people now that can make shots,”

Huggins is also hopeful his team will be aided by the WVU Coliseum crowd. In five home games this season, WVU has had crowds of 8,336, 6,038, 4,814, 5,067 and 4,692 in the 14,000-seat arena. Huggins has been vocal about his displeasure but he’s confident the fans will turn out with a nationally-ranked team in town.

“I need it for my psyche,” he said. “I get tired of walking in there and seeing so many empty seats. When our students are into it, this is a great place. Most teams play better at home, but, historically, West Virginia has played great in this arena, to a large degree because of the fan base.

“When you don’t have that, you lose a little. There have been a lot of people disguised as chairs.”

“We haven’t lost a game at home,” added Harris. “If we go out and play like it’s the last game we ever play, we should be fine.”

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