Freshman Eron Harris has become a key contributor for WVU since hitting a clutch 3-pointer against Texas.
MORGANTOWN - When last West Virginia and Texas played, Eron Harris was more of a curiosity than anything else.
Yes, he'd played some minutes for the Mountaineers. In fact, in some of those earlier games he'd played a lot. He was on the floor for 28 minutes against Oakland. He made key shots when it mattered against then-unbeaten Virginia Tech and soon-to-be-No. 1 Michigan.
But there were also times when Bob Huggins would simply ignore the freshman guard. He played three minutes against Oklahoma in Orlando and two against Marshall. In six of the games to that point, he'd failed to exceed 10 minutes of court time. Heading into the Texas game on Jan. 9 in Austin, Harris had averaged 12.6 minutes per game, but that number was actually dropping.
And then he made a shot that could have been his signature one for the season and it changed everything. Now, nearly four weeks later, he looks back on it and is asked if that was really the start of his college career.
"Yeah,'' Harris said. "It really was.''
As West Virginia (10-11, 3-5 Big 12) prepares to host Texas (10-11, 2-6) again tonight in WVU's second straight Big Monday game (9 p.m. tip on ESPN), Harris' emergence has made a rather significant difference for the Mountaineers.
Up to and including that game, West Virginia was shooting 27.6 percent from 3-point range. It was one of the worst percentages in the country. Over the full season, WVU is still shooting just 30.4 percent, a figure that has mercifully just allowed the team to climb into the Top 300 (No. 292) in 3-point accuracy.
But in the seven games since that first meeting with Texas, consider that the Mountaineers are actually averaging one fewer 3-point attempt per game (16.4 down from 17.4 over the first 14 games), but are making more (6.0 as opposed to 4.8). The 3-point shooting percentage over those last seven games is 36.5 percent. Over a full season that would be good enough to rank close to the Top 50.
And much of that is thanks to Harris. He joined fellow freshman Terry Henderson and occasionally a few others - Jabarie Hinds, Matt Humphrey, Gary Browne - in giving the team enough of an outside shooting threat that the 3-pointer could become a legitimate weapon, rather than an after-all-else-fails fallback. And he pretty much did it with one shot, his late-game 3 that gave the Mountaineers a late-game lead over Texas in a game they trailed by 10 just minutes before.
Texas would counter what could have been the game-winner by Harris that night, but WVU still won the game in overtime. And since the night that Harris showed how clutch he can be, he has been a regular part of the rotation. Two games later, he was in the starting lineup for the first time and hasn't left.
In fact, he's the only player who has started each of West Virginia's last six games and is far and away the team's leading scorer over that span, averaging nearly 14 points. He also has 14 3-pointers in that stretch after making only 12 in more than twice as many games prior to that. Harris has had games with five and four 3s, and in a 77-61 win at Texas Tech Saturday he had three more.
Harris admits that perhaps that one shot at Texas was the difference for him.
"Yeah, I think it was,'' the freshman from Indianapolis said. "I wasn't really having that good a game and then I ended up hitting the shot of the game. It gave me confidence that if you're not shooting well, keep shooting. You'll hit one.''
Indeed, that first Texas game wasn't even a great one for Harris, who otherwise was 0-for-5 from the field and whose only other statistical contributions were two turnovers and a foul. But he made that shot.
"Well, it was a big couple of seconds for me,'' Harris said when asked by someone to recall his big game in Austin. "The game wasn't that good for me. Hopefully I can have a better one.''
He's been having better ones since. The next game he made an impossible fall-away shot on the baseline that could have been a game-winner against Kansas State at home except that the Mountaineers allowed the Wildcats to score in the final second. He made 4 of 7 3s in a wild comeback attempt at Iowa State and then 5 of 8 at Oklahoma State.
Saturday at Tech, Harris missed his first four 3s and scored just three points in the first half, but finished with 18 points.
And with the outside shooting of Harris and Henderson, along with Browne and sometimes Jabarie Hinds, West Virginia might finally be creating an identity after a season of searching for answers. The win Saturday at Texas Tech was far from perfect - 18 turnovers, 23 fouls - but for a team that needs to string together some wins, it was at least a start.
"I think we're not looking at the negatives. We're looking more at the positives that we did,'' Harris said after Saturday's win. "We can control our turnovers. Those were mental mistakes. But overall I think we played pretty well.''
BRIEFLY: Texas hasn't done much since losing that Jan. 9 game to WVU, much like the Mountaineers. The Longhorns have won two of their last three, but to the only teams WVU has beaten since then, too - TCU and Texas Tech.
Texas rolled over TCU Saturday in Austin, winning 60-43, and hammered Texas Tech by 16 points a week before that. But in between the Longhorns went to Kansas State and lost by 25.
WVU and Texas have met four times, each school has won twice, no margin of victory has been more than four points and the composite score in the four games is 283-282 in favor of West Virginia.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/dphickman1