Truck shifts gears away from scoring
MORGANTOWN - Perhaps the only thing more surprising than Truck Bryant failing to score in West Virginia's 55-51 loss to Notre Dame Wednesday night was this:
He didn't try to score.
For the most part during his career, Bryant has seldom met a shot he didn't like or wouldn't take. But after hoisting three 3-point attempts and failing on a couple of drives to the basket in the game's first 15 minutes, he just stopped shooting.
Had the senior guard just given up? No, Bob Huggins said. In fact, far from it.
"I thought Truck really tried to win,'' Huggins said after the Mountaineers had lost for the fourth time in five games, slipping back to .500 in the Big East and putting yet another crimp in their drive for a fifth straight NCAA tournament invitation. "He didn't try to force things and he got the ball to the people who scored.''
Indeed, Bryant did that Wednesday night, setting a career high with eight assists. In fact, he reverted back to his job during his first three seasons as the team's point guard and had perhaps his best game ever in that role. It doesn't get much better than eight assists against just one turnover.
But even when Bryant was a true point guard he still shot the ball. A lot. When he surpassed the 1,000-point mark during an NCAA tournament game in Tampa, Fla., last March, Joe Mazzulla cracked that Bryant got his 1,000 points on 1,000 shots.
He wasn't far off. Bryant is now responsible for 1,164 shots en route to his 1,454 points.
That's why it was so unusual to see him shut it down against the Irish, particularly after he had scored 32 points three days earlier in an overtime win at Providence. He even had an on-court conversation with teammate Deniz Kilicli about shooting just before he nailed the game-winning 3-pointer that afternoon.
"He kept saying, 'Shoot it, shoot it, shoot it,' '' Bryant said of Kilicli. "Well, you know me. I was going to shoot it anyway. He didn't have to tell me.''
Yet against Notre Dame he didn't shoot it. He went from just under the five-minute mark of the first half until just 90 seconds remained before shooting again. He would finish 0-for-6 overall and 0-for-3 on 3-pointers and go scoreless for the first time since the championship game of a tournament in Puerto Rico in November of 2010. In a 127-game career he had been held without a point only five times, and in four of those five games he averaged only 12 minutes on the floor.
Against the Irish he never came out.
"It's hard when teams are keying on you,'' said teammate Kevin Jones, who knows the feeling while leading the Big East in scoring and rebounding. "It's a sign of respect, but it's hard to play your game.''
Indeed, Notre Dame was doing everything it could to deny Bryant shots, unwilling to suffer the fate of Providence. Bryant could have forced the issue, but for one of the few times in his career he did not, which was fine with Huggins.
"He's never made shots forcing them,'' Huggins said. "We were up three with him getting the ball to other people. He didn't have any [shots]. They did a really good job on him.''
Or at least the Mountaineers were up three until it all fell apart. Leading 45-42, West Virginia gave up a contested 3-pointer to Eric Atkins to tie the game. Bryant then made his only turnover of the game trying to get the ball inside and the Irish scored another 3 by Jerian Grant. When Bryant finally shot the ball for the first time in almost 25 game minutes, he missed on a drive toward the basket and Notre Dame eventually got another 3 by Scott Martin to put it away.
All of which puts the Mountaineers (16-9, 6-6 Big East) into a tough situation. They host a hot No. 24 Louisville team at noon Saturday, then face two teams on the road that have already beaten them at home - Pitt next Thursday and Notre Dame the following Wednesday. Then comes a home game with No. 18 Marquette before closing the regular season at home with DePaul and on the road at South Florida.
The only positive in there is that after Saturday's game with Louisville, West Virginia has just one game in the ensuing 11 days. For a team that relies so heavily on just three players - Bryant, Jones and Kilicli - that's another necessary break this late in the year.
"Truck just had a bad scoring night. It doesn't mean he didn't play,'' Jones said. "But this team depends on the three of us to do a lot, and when we don't do it, it can get ugly.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.