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West Virginia survives Jacksonville State scare as frustrations pop up again

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — At this point, Bob Huggins is racking up quite a medical bill for carnival whack-a-moles.

That was the metaphor Huggins used Saturday, following West Virginia’s 74-72 victory against Jacksonville State, in front of a season-low 8,231 fans inside the WVU Coliseum.

In the midst of a season that already has presented more drama than 10 daytime soap operas, Huggins said he felt like a guy at a festival beating those moles, hoping no more pop up, but they keep coming.

BOXSCORE: West Virginia 74, Jacksonville State 72

“Stuff just keeps popping up,” Huggins said. “You can’t keep them all down. I thought [Brandon] Knapper was playing pretty well and then he just hands the ball to them. Why does it happen? We just do [silly] things.”

In holding off the Gamecocks (7-5), out of the Ohio Valley Conference, West Virginia found itself engulfed by more storylines that included starting forward Esa Ahmad getting pulled from the game and only playing four minutes, while freshman forward Derek Culver made his season debut — he scored four points — after sitting out a 10-game suspension for a violation of team rules and center Sagaba Konate (knee) showed up to the game in crutches and is expected to be out for at least the start of Big 12 play.

“My concern is that we do what’s in Sags’ best interest, but I’m not a doctor,” Huggins said of Konate’s situation. “I could look at an MRI and it wouldn’t tell me much. It’s in the hands of the experts and Sags. We’re just going to go on.”

Other than that, the Mountaineers couldn’t muster up enough fortitude to win the rebounding battle — Jacksonville State won there, 36-34 — or stop the Gamecocks from scoring 20 second-chance points that kept the game interesting until the very end. The Gamecocks also doubled up West Virginia in points in the paint, 32-16.

“I felt like we passed the ball a little better, but we weren’t making all of our shots,” said West Virginia forward Lamont West, who helped save the day with 18 points and four 3-pointers. “There’s a lot more stuff to do with it, but I can’t really talk about it.”

Maybe what needs to be discussed, with everything else going on around the program, is the play of junior Wesley Harris, who scored a career-high 20 points on 8 of 11 shooting and added eight rebounds.

It’s the second straight game Harris scored set a career high, after going for 18 against Rhode Island last Sunday.

“I’ve become more comfortable in the offense and I’m hitting my shots,” Harris said. “You just have to keep your confidence and let the game slow down. Once you do that, everything else really takes care of itself.”

How is Harris thriving when everything else seems to be chaotic? Huggins credited Harris’ mental toughness and his ability to keep working at his game.

“I thought he went and got a couple of big boy rebounds and follows that I haven’t seen all year, quite frankly,” he said.

“The longer you keep working, the easier it gets,” Harris added.

Harris’ impact was felt late, first hitting a 3-pointer with 3:17 remaining that gave the Mountaineers 71-67 lead. He added a second 3-pointer with 1:44 left that gave WVU a 74-69 lead.

From there, West Virginia nearly gave it away. The Mountaineers missed two shots from the field, including a lay-up attempt, and then guards Jermaine Haley and Chase Harler both missed the front end of one-and-one free-throw attempts over the final 22 seconds.

Jacksonville State’s Jason Burnell missed a 3-point attempt with eight seconds left that could have given the Gamecocks the lead.

Harler’s free-throw miss with 3.1 seconds left led to a Jacksonville State rebound and a long pass down the court that went out of bounds as the final buzzer sounded.

The Gamecocks had a timeout remaining, but no player called for one. Coaches are no longer permitted by NCAA rules to call a timeout while the ball is in play.

“That was on me,” Jacksonville State coach Ray Harper said. “We should have communicated it better with the kids. And once you rebound it, they have to call it. That’s one that I’ve got to do a better job communicating with them.”

After playing two games in 14 days, the Mountaineers will now have another week off before hosting Lehigh next Sunday. Big 12 play begins Jan. 2, with a visit from 12th-ranked Texas Tech.

“We came out with a win, but I feel like Jacksonville State wanted it more,” West Virginia guard Brandon Knapper said. “We have to come out with more intensity. We have to be able to come out for the kill every game.”

Knapper finished with 12 points off the bench, in what was West Virginia’s only clear statistical advantage. WVU’s bench outscored Jacksonville State’s, 38-16.

“It was right there for us,” Harper said. “The kids played hard. I thought we executed.”

As for West Virginia, who knows what mole will pop up next.

“I’m just tired of it,” Huggins said. “I’m tired of fighting with guys to play the game they say they love. It’s a great game, because you can’t cheat it. If you don’t practice, the ball doesn’t go in.”

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