MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — In his own words, Esa Ahmad said he could have very easily shut it down and taken his benching last week personally.
Except that is not how he is built and it’s not the type of relationship West Virgina players have with coach Bob Huggins.
“I think all of us who have been around here for a while know you are going to have good days and bad days,” junior point guard Beetle Bolden said after the Mountaineers’ 78-68 victory over Lehigh on Sunday, in front of 10,754 fans inside the WVU Coliseum.
“After the bad days, we know you just have to put it in the past and move on. That’s what [Huggins] expects of us.”
And so we come to the latest edition of Ahmad’s story, beginning with playing just four minutes in last week’s win against Jacksonville State.
That day ended with Ahmad and Huggins locked together in a private conversation that the coach described this way:
“You can’t put it in the paper,” he began. “You know when you put a lot of question marks and slashes and all of that stuff [in place of expletives].”
“I could have pouted or shut it down,” Ahmad added. “That wouldn’t be a good example to set for the younger guys. That’s not who I am.”
When the game was in doubt — West Virginia held a slim 59-57 lead with 7:08 remaining — Ahmad turned his game up another notch.
It began with a free throw, before Ahmad connected on a short jumper.
It ended with Ahmad making two more free throws and then hitting another mid-range shot that put the game out of reach, 71-59, with 3:03 left.
In truth, Ahmad was money throughout the second half.
There were two critical 3-pointers and a slam dunk in transition that answered runs by the Mountain Hawks (7-4).
In all, he scored 15 points and grabbed six rebounds in the second half to give him 21 and 9 on the day.
It was a complete reversal from just eight days prior, when Huggins called it a “culmination of things” that put Ahmad on the bench for good.
“I feel like that’s life in general,” Ahmad said. “You have some bad games, but the next day is a new day. You have to make a better day and stay positive.
“I felt like the difference between the two games was I played more than four minutes. I tried to stay aggressive and took my time.”
With an eye toward next Wednesday’s home opener in Big 12 play against No. 11 Texas Tech, the Mountaineers (8-4) grabbed a season-high 52 rebounds, including 22 offensive rebounds that set up 30 second-chance points.
“Their power on the inside was difficult for us to deal with,” Lehigh coach Dr. Brett Reed said. “Obviously, they had a number of points in the paint and a number of points off second-chance opportunities.”
Ahmad had plenty of help in this one, beginning with freshman forward Derek Culver.
In just his second college game, Culver recorded his first career double-double with 11 points and 11 rebounds.
Beetle Bolden came off the bench — Huggins said he wanted to try and get the Bolden away from the point guard position — and added 22 points, eight rebounds and five assists. Jordan McCabe started at point guard and finished with five points and two assists in 12 minutes.
Bolden’s best moment came midway through the first half when he dove into the crowd to save a ball from going out of bounds. Seconds later, he hauled in a pass from teammate Emmitt Matthews Jr. and connected on one of his four 3-pointers.
“I think today’s the healthiest he’s been all year,” Huggins said of Bolden, who has played this season with a hand and elbow injuries. “He was able to get through the ball today. He was pushing everything, because of his hand. I told him [Saturday], ‘We’re going to have to get you off the ball some because you’re going to have to score for us.’”
Culver, too, had some big moments late, including a baseline drive that ended with him scoring and getting an and-one three-point play that pushed the Mountaineers’ lead to 65-59 with 5:37 left.
But, the day belonged to Ahmad, who is now just 67 points shy of 1,000 for his career.
“I couldn’t get down on myself,” Ahmad said. “I knew that if I shut down, that a lot of the younger guys look to me and they would shut down. I knew I couldn’t do that. I talked with coach and we got things straightened out. You just stay positive and move on from there.”