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After year away from basketball, Sean McNeil showed major colleges he could play

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Looking back now on his journey, there are parts to Sean McNeil’s story even he finds difficult to believe.

Certainly there are parts in which he wished he would’ve reacted differently.

All of it composes an unconventional recruiting story for the 6-foot-4 guard who signed to play at West Virginia on Wednesday after earning All-American honors at Sinclair Community College in Dayton, Ohio.

“More than anything else, I’m really grateful for the opportunity that West Virginia is giving me,” said McNeil, who has three years of eligibility remaining. “Going through some of the things I’ve been through, it makes you appreciate the game more than I ever have before and now getting an opportunity to go to West Virginia is a blessing for me.”

Less than two years ago McNeil wasn’t even on a basketball roster.

He was just a regular student taking classes at Gateway Community and Technical College, a campus without an athletics program. His basketball action came during pick-up games, sometimes in open gyms at Northern Kentucky University.

McNeil knew he put himself in basketball limbo.

At Cooper High School in Union, Ky. — about a 30-minute drive from Cincinnati — he led the Jaguars to a runner-up finish in the Kentucky state tournament as a senior. However, McNeil was not recruited by any Division I schools.

“I was frustrated,” he said. “I thought I was working just as hard as everyone else and playing just as well as anyone else.”

He signed with Division II power Bellarmine in Louisville, though his stay was brief.

“I went through orientation week and I was there for two classes on a Thursday.” Then, in a move that stunned the Bellarmine coaches, McNeill decided to leave.

“It didn’t have anything to do with how I was recruited. I just didn’t give myself a chance to adjust to college life and the atmosphere,” he said. “I was on my own for the first time and panicked and just left. It was all on me.”

Back home from Bellarmine, McNeil moved into self-reflection and wondered whether he actually wanted to keep playing basketball. Realizing how much he missed it, he set out to “earn my keep” by enrolling at Sinclair, a lower-level Division II junior college.

“Junior college is kind of where you bet on yourself. Whatever you put in is likely what you’ll get out of it. Obviously, I worked pretty hard going into the season and then things turned out pretty well for me. I was going to prove everybody wrong.”

In his first game, McNeil scored 40 points. Three games later, against Bryant and Stratton College, he shot 9-of-14 from 3-point range and dropped 55. Suddenly, the kid who couldn’t get a sniff at Division I coming out of high school was getting noticed.

At first, it was mid-major schools like Lipscomb and UNC Asheville who offered scholarships. After West Virginia assistant Erik Martin showed interest, the Mountaineers became the first school from a power conference to recruit him.

More offers followed, like Oklahoma State and Texas Tech in the Big 12, while Ole Miss, Missouri and Arkansas also joined in.

“Once I started scoring 30 and 40 points consistently, that’s when things started to get crazy,” he said. “One thing that was really intriguing about West Virginia was that they didn’t come in late. They were there from the beginning of the year.”

There were plenty more high-scoring games — 15 of 30 or more points. He became the top scorer among all junior college players in his national division at 29.7 points per game and shot 43.1 percent from 3-point range.

“I guess I surprised myself a little bit,” McNeil said. A few times after high-scoring games, he stepped back and talk with his coach Jeff Price about staying humble.

“I realized I was just like any other kid who enjoys playing basketball.”

That was the thing — McNeil was enjoying the game of basketball again. No more worries about fitting in or adapting to life in college. No more thoughts of high-tailing it home.

“I knew it was either make-or-break,” he said. “I was either going to go up to Sinclair and perform and earn my keep or go up there and fold. After going through everything I did, I wasn’t going to let that happen.”