MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — As an excitable high school player in Western Pennsylvania, Sagaba Konate sometimes followed his best dunks with a biceps flex.
“But I got a lot of technicals,” he admitted.
College officials being more forgiving, the West Virginia freshman broke out the muscle pose again Saturday after his crucial and-one basket against TCU. Konate animated the WVU Coliseum and teammates by scoring seven of his 13 points and blocking three shots during the homestretch of an 82-70 win.
“It means the world to have him playing like that inside,” said guard Daxter Miles. “I talk to Sags everyday, man, and we need him. You can see he’s getting better.”
Capitalizing on putbacks and point-blank opportunities, Konate has made 16 of his last 20 shots. He’s averaging 5.6 points overall, but 10.3 points in three Big 12 games, a reversal of expectation for a young player in the nation’s highest-RPI league.
When TCU rallied to equalize Saturday’s game, Konate’s emphatic play at both rims saved West Virginia from a possible upset. Miles dubbed him “a freak” after the 250-pounder blocked a shot high off the backboard, sparking a late 16-4 run. Konate’s timely production loomed larger on a day when the gimpy Elijah Macon provided nothing, appearing winded after two fouls and one turnover in seven minutes.
Until Macon regains conditioning and confidence, WVU’s three-man committee in the middle boils down to just two, Brandon Watkins and Konate.
“Sags was in at crunch time and he did what he had to do,” said guard Jevon Carter. “He should do that more often.”
To this end, coach Bob Huggins expects more altered shots once Konate fully grasps the defensive system.
“He doesn’t know which rotation to make sometimes, and this isn’t a game you can think, it’s a game you have to react,” Huggins said. “Until he gets comfortable with where he needs to be, he’s going to slow himself down by overthinking things.”
Tuesday’s showdown against No. 1-ranked Baylor should present a unique challenge, with Konate giving away three inches to 6-foot-11 forward Johnathan Motley and even more to 7-foot center Jo Lual-Acuil. Both big men rank among the Big 12’s top six rebounders.
“I’ve just go to keep playing hard,” said Konate, a Mali native who speaks English with a staccato cadence (along with two other languages). “All we talk about is rebounding the ball.”
Senior forward Nathan Adrian, essentially the team’s floor coach at the front of the press, recognizes more than athleticism and strength in Konate’s game. He sees a freshman fighting for gritty baskets and staying within himself on offense.
“He doesn’t take himself out of the game by making dumb plays. He does what Coach wants him to do,” Adrian said.
Konate understands WVU won’t be running offensive sets through him, and he’s not the least bit impatient about hoisting midrange jumpers, much less becoming a primary scorer. For now there’s plenty of satisfaction from guarding the basket at the rear of “Press Virginia” and earning his minutes on the defensive end.
“That’s my job to do,” he said. “As a big man, you’ve got to protect the rim every time. Play some D and the offense will follow.”