When West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins called his second-to-last timeout with 56 seconds left and his Mountaineers ahead 64-63 in Waco Tuesday night, he didn’t draw up a set piece. Instead, he simply told his trusted point guard what he surely knew.
“It wasn’t really a play,” said junior guard Juwan Staten. “He pretty much told me that the ball was going to be in my hands. ‘Run the shot clock down and then make something happen.’ So that’s what I did.”
Staten listened and drove to the basket out of the timeout drawing a foul and earning a trip to the free-throw line – where he’s been a 70.1 percent shooter this season – with a chance to put his team up by three points.
It wasn’t to be, though, as his second attempt clanked off the front of the rim. It was his fourth miss in five attempts from the charity stripe that night, and Staten said he actually thought he had given the game away.
His own head coach said he couldn’t believe it.
“I was shocked,” Huggins said. “After he missed that front end (earlier), I was sure he’d step up and make those two.”
Instead, Baylor, who hadn’t led since the score was 9-8 in the opening half, found themselves with a chance to actually regain the lead, with less than 50 seconds left and just a single-point deficit, after trailing by eight points just more than three minutes earlier.
“After the free throws, I was a little disappointed in myself,” Staten said. “That’s something I take pride in, being a clutch player.
“It just felt like I couldn’t let the team down. I had already missed a number of free throws in the game, and I just felt like I needed to do something.”
He did something all right.
After the Bears’ Rico Gathers missed his own opportunity to take the lead at the free throw line following a foul with 36 seconds at the other end, Staten got the ball back with a chance to not only redeem himself at the free throw line, but also lift his team to a much-needed conference road victory.
“I knew that I was pretty much the one that was going to take that last shot,” Staten said. “That was something I made up in my mind. I felt like I gave the game away a little bit at the end, and I felt like it was up to me. I wouldn’t sleep good at night if I didn’t do something to win that game.”
Spoiler alert: Staten slept just fine.
In fact, no one else even needed to touch the ball on the Mountaineers’ last possession, after junior forward Remi Dibo inbounded it to Staten 90 feet away from the basket with 35 ticks left and the game tied.
“We knew that if he got the ball in his hands, we were going to be in a good situation,” Dibo said. “(It would be) either him going to the basket or to make a play to get us open. We were just waiting for the clock to go down and him to make a play, and he did it.”
He did, indeed. After burning nearly the entire shot clock just a few steps over midcourt, Staten drove right, turned the corner on one Baylor defender, slipped past another in the paint and finished with a slick reverse layup that fell through the net with just three seconds remaining in the game.
“When it comes down to the last shot, it’s Juwan. It’s in his hands,” said sophomore guard Eron Harris. “He’s going to distribute it to whoever needs the ball. He’s going to make the decision that needs to be made. He made the right decision, and we all had trust in him.”
It’s not the first time the Mountaineers have gone to the junior guard late in games, and it certainly doesn’t appear to be the last, either. In addition to praise from his teammates, Huggins said Staten simply possesses a unique feel that allows him to recognize whether he needs to find the open man or make the play himself, regardless of the time, situation or circumstance.
“I think he does it at the right time,” Huggins said. “He understands he’s got to get other people involved. And he understands when everybody else is struggling, where he has to try and make a play.
“We’re one of the better assist-to-turnover ratio teams in the league, and the honest to God’s truth is that (is) because (Staten) has the ball most of the time. We try to have him keep it as much as he can keep it.”
Staten said he can sense that trust from both his coaches and his teammates, and it has pushed him to become a better player.
“They respect me, they believe in me and that gives me a lot of confidence. I just went out there and did what (Huggins) asked me to do. We have a good group of guys. We all care
about each other. We all play for each other. We have tough games, but we go through it as a group, and we just have to keep our head up and keep fighting.”