MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Jonathan Holton sounded sentimental over senior night sneaking up on him. Jaysean Paige was apprehensive about making a pregame speech at midcourt.
While unlikely to leak as much emotion as Gary Browne and Juwan Staten did before last season’s home finale, Holton and Paige will find Wednesday night’s ceremony awash in reflection and gratitude.
And it flows both ways.
West Virginia offered Holton a rebirth after his expulsion from Rhode Island, just as it gave Paige a safe landing after Southern Miss changed coaches late in his recruitment. Both players helped elevate the program to its current top-10 status, where ambition mounts for the Mountaineers (22-7, 11-5) to improve upon last year’s Sweet 16 run.
“It’s kind of sad that it’s almost over, but we’ve still got a lot more games to go,” said Holton, the Big 12’s second-leading offensive rebounder and the world leader in scream defense as he tries to psyche out inbounders atop the full-court press.
Paige has picked up his defensive intensity as well—he’s second in the Big 12 in steals per 40 minutes—though it’s Paige’s offensive aggression that makes him a no-brainer for sixth man of the year and a debatable inclusion on the all-conference team.
He’s not sure how his career would have unfolded had he stuck with Southern Miss after coach Donnie Tyndall left in April 2014. Paige took a face-to-face meeting with Doc Sadler but didn’t feel a connection with the new coach. When West Virginia offered a few days later it seemed a godsend.
Neck-deep in NCAA infractions from Tyndall’s regime, Southern Miss self-imposed postseason bans the past two seasons and has posted a 17-39 record. Aside from avoiding the quagmire that ensued in Hattiesburg, Paige realized how good he had it at WVU immediately.
On his first charter flight he saw “Gatorade and snacks everywhere. Seats you could lay down and almost make into a bed.” What a contrast from the 12-hour bus ride he made in junior college at Southern Idaho.
Then there was the Mountaineers’ always-accessible practice facility, just a 5-minute drive from Paige’s apartment.
“I can wake up in the middle of the night if I can’t sleep and I’ll come shoot,” he said.
Sometimes in the middle of those nights he receives texts and SnapChats from former juco teammates like Montigo Alford, set for his own senior night on Wednesday at Boise State, or Darius Johnson, a leader on the LSU-Alexandria team ranked No. 1 in NAIA. They’ve seen Paige drop 26 on Kansas, 34 on Iowa State, plus make cameos across other ESPN highlights.
The Mountaineer Maniacs love seeing Paige holster three fingers after his 3-point shots, an atmosphere to relish now that he and Holton have navigated rough patches. Paige played only 13 minutes a game last season and scored a combine three points in three NCAA games. Holton was ineligible for the 2013-14 season and missed four games last month while suspended for a violation of team rules.
“Even when I was going through those four games the fans still showed me love,” he said. “I’m happy to be part of something special. Everywhere I go it’s mad love and support.”
Tipoff: Wednesday, 7 p.m. in Morgantown (ESPNU)
RPIs: West Virginia 13, Texas Tech 25
Scouting Texas Tech: The Red Raiders (18-10, 8-8) had a five-game win streak snapped at Kansas on Saturday, 67-58, but remain in solid position for their first NCAA bid since 2007. … With Tech picked last in the preseason poll, Tubby Smith figures to be a popular choice for Big 12 coach of the year, unless Huggins wins it. …Toddrick Gotcher (11.2 points, 2.3 assists) leads four players in double figures, but Devaugntah Williams (10.6 points) was scoreless with only one shot attempt thanks to foul trouble in the first meeting, which Tech led until the final minute. … The Raiders made 32-of-34 free throws in that 80-76 loss and lead the Big 12 at 75 percent from the foul line. … Forwards Zach Smith (10.0 points, 7.4 rebounds) and Aaron Ross (10.6 points, 4.6 rebounds) are the primary interior threats, but sophomore guard Keenan Evans (8.6 points, 2.9 assists) is playing a larger role.
WVU trends: Tarik Phillip (9.3 points, 2.9 assists) faces the team he single-handedly waylaid in the final minute in Lubbock. He’s shooting better than 42 percent from 3, which would rank sixth in the Big if he had enough makes to qualify for the leaderboard. … Paige (14.3 points, 3.6 rebounds) is the reigning league player of the week, while Holton (9.5 points, 7.9 rebounds) tops WVU in deflections. They’ll join walk-on Richard Romeo in the senior night tribute. … Devin Williams (13.3 points, 9.1 rebounds) fouled out at Texas Tech with five points in 16 minutes. … Nathan Adrian is shooting 45.5 percent from 3, after making 14-of-22 in a 10-game stretch. WVU wishes he would rub off on Jevon Carter (9.2 points, 3.1 assists), who’s in a 7-for-50 slump. … If the Mountaineers hang on to the No. 2 seed, they likely would face Texas Tech in the Big 12 tournament quarterfinals in Kansas City.
Line: West Virginia -9 1/2
Prediction: West Virginia 75, Texas Tech 68