By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Bob Huggins earned whatever 10 days of a $3-million-a-year contract is these past 10 days as re-invented his West Virginia University basketball team, picking them up off the floor after the worst defeat of his career at Gonzaga and turning them into a team that fit the image he has of it.
They came out in the Old Spice Classic in Orlando, Fla., on Thursday and kicked an overmatched Marist team in the gut, 87-44, playing in-your-face defense, pounding the boards and the floor for every loose ball, running at every opportunity yet valuing the basketball as if it were the last of the turkey legs on Thanksgiving night and finally shooting the ball with authority.
It was, to be sure, one of Huggins’ better coaching jobs, shaking any doubt about themselves from the minds of the players, forcing them to think whatever torturous coaching methods he had in store for them would erase the bitter taste of that trip to Spokane, Wash.
In a way, Huggins reinvented the team. He used two new starters in Kevin Noreen and Aaron Brown, holding Aaric Murray back until the second half, while unleashing a pair of freshmen on an unsuspecting Marist team in Eron Harris and Terry Henderson, who wound up being the team’s leading scorers.
Whatever it is those two had for a pre-game meal they should have shared with the world, for they were armed and dangerous as Huggins inserted them into the game.
In truth, this did not surprise insiders, for Huggins had shared his belief that they were ready to contribute in a big way, even though they themselves were more of a mind of coming to WVU and listening and learning during the first year.
“I’m blessed to be able to play my freshman year,” said Harris. “I wouldn’t want to do it with anyone else but Terry.”
It was Henderson who was first off the bench, and he brought with him a gallon of Red Bull, at least in spirit.
He said it was Huggins who put the gas in his tank.
“He came out (after Gonzaga ) and harassed us and got us going,” he said.
It was obvious from the start that the Mountaineers were a different group that sleepwalked through the Washington experience, but it was Henderson who lit up the scoreboard from the outside game and got them going in the transition game.
“I saw a team that needed to make some shots, and I just wanted to get us going,” he said. “I was just being aggressive and helping the team as best I could.”
By halftime he had 14 points on 5-of-6 shooting with four rebounds, two assists and nary a turnover. By then the game was over.
The shooting that came from him was hardly shocking. Jay Jacobs, the veteran play-by-play announcer, compared his jump shot to Da’Sean Butler’s, which is pretty good company when you are just playing your second college game.
Harris eventually passed Henderson and had 15 points on 7-of-8 shooting. The two freshmen combined for 12 of 16 from the floor, including some spectacular dunks on the front end of some flashy transition baskets.
“This has been the most comfortable I’ve felt at West Virginia,” Harris admitted. “Everyone noticed it; my confidence has been up and down. This is the highest it’s been, and it will stay there.”
The reason came from his teammates and coaches.
“I felt like my teammates and coaches put trust in me. I felt I could make mistakes and not get taken out of there,” Harris said.
With Henderson and Harris leading the way, the WVU bench was spectacular. Four players came off the bench to score in double figures. In all, the bench scored 61 of the 87 points, hitting 26 of 40 shots, 65 percent.
“We have pieces,” Huggins said, his 711th victory in hand. “I have got to keep working with them. Everyone says, ‘Who are your top seven? I’m not sure I know who they are, but Henderson is working his way in there.”
At 12:30 today they go into the second round of the Old Spice Classic, facing Davidson, who defeated Vanderbilt yesterday afternoon, 75-62.
Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.