MORGANTOWN — In Bob Huggins’ own words, Jermaine Haley is not a young man who seeks the spotlight or, more to the point, wants to be viewed as a ball hog.
“Jermaine doesn’t want to be looked at as a pig,” Huggins said after watching West Virginia use a 19-2 run Wednesday night to pull out a 77-63 victory over Grand Canyon in front of 5,313 fans inside the WVU Coliseum. “He enjoys passing the ball. He enjoys that part of it. That’s why he likes being a point guard, so he can get other guys some shots.”
In as much as a spotlight as a first-round game in the College Basketball Invitational (CBI) can supply, the 6-foot-7 Haley may have soaked it all up on this night with 24 points — more on that in a minute — and a thunderous slam dunk that ended the first half with the Mountaineers (15-20) holding a slim 36-32 lead.
“That was definitely a boost for me,” Haley said. “It’s kind of a rush. You really don’t really know what it is that you’re doing or what’s happening, but it definitely is a good feeling when you get it done.”
His teammates’ grades on the dunk were up and down on the scale.
“He traveled, so it probably shouldn’t have even counted,” joked Chase Harler, who hit a crucial 3-pointer with 8:51 remaining that was the beginning of a 22-2 run that sealed the game.
Added Emmitt Matthews Jr., who had his own highlight-reel dunk against Texas Tech last week in the Big 12 tournament: “I’ll be nice and give him an A-minus. I don’t think mine was an A-plus, but Jermaine surprised me. I didn’t think he was going to do it, just because the clock was running really low.”
Haley’s dunk didn’t exactly create the immediate spark it should have, as the Antelopes (20-14) hung in there behind nine 3-pointers and the game was tied at 51 with 9:21 remaining after Logan Routt tipped in a miss by Jordan McCabe.
“We knew they were good and we came out flat,” Harler said. “They’re a good team. If we would have played in the first half like we did the second half, it could have been a blowout, but credit to them for keeping things close.”
That’s when the rest of Haley’s 24 points came into play.
First it was Harler grabbing a rebound and hitting a long outlet pass to Haley for a transition lay-up.
That was followed by a couple of set plays that turned into close looks for Haley, which he knocked down.
Then the big guard, who started his career at New Mexico State and played Grand Canyon twice as a freshman, got out in transition and scored an and-one three-point play that gave WVU a 65-53 lead and the Mountaineers were basically set to advance to the second round of the CBI. In all, Haley scored 16 of his 24 points in the second half.
“Jermaine played really well,” Grand Canyon coach Dan Majerle said. “I saw him at New Mexico State when he was there. He continues to kill me, but that’s fine. It was fun.”
The Mountaineers will host Coastal Carolina at 7 p.m. Monday in the CBI quarterfinals. The Chanticleers beat Howard, 81-72, on Wednesday.
“The defense turned everything around for us,” Huggins said. “We started taking things away. They weren’t able to run what they wanted to run and we got a couple steals that led to lay-ups.”
The Mountaineers had four players score in double figures with Matthews and Lamont West adding 11 and Harler scoring 10.
Grand Canyon was led by Oscar Frayer, who had 13 points and four rebounds, but the Antelopes were just 3 of 10 from 3-point range after hitting six of them in the first half. West Virginia also held a 49-36 advantage on the boards.
“I was on them for the while first half that we’ve got to guard,” Huggins said. “I think they felt a whole lot better in the second half, but it’s easier to feel better when you’re ahead.”