I've always said there is no such thing as an ugly win. This game provides the strongest contradictory evidence to that statement that you will ever find.
Tarrant and Kessens were back in the starting lineup. The team appeared flat early on as the Mountaineers built an 8 point first half lead. By starting Kessens, Cooper, and Taylor, it appeared our game plan early was to take advantage of ASU's apparent weakness, which is their lack of size and inability to defend in the post. Unfortunately, this also took us away from our strength of playing up-tempo and shooting from the perimeter. Taylor and Cooper got several good looks from the low block early on but could not finish around the rim. Kessens was slow to start, but turned it around and had a fantastic game.
In fact, Kessens and Riley Norris were arguably the only bright spots in this one. Thankfully it was just enough. We finally realized the jumpers were not falling and started working the ball in to Kessens consistently in the second half. We finally took the lead with about 8 minutes to play, but could never put them away, every time we got up by 4 we had a turnover or gave up an open 3.
I've been calling for Justin Coleman to play more, but he didn't really help his case in this game. He only played 10 minutes, and while I thought he initially gave us a spark in the first half, he had two horrible turnovers where he telegraphed a lazy pass at the top of the key that resulted in uncontested dunks for App State.
Rodney Cooper sat on the bench for most of the 2nd half. While he didn't have a great game, we certainly could have used his rebounding, and I would have put him in on defense at the end of the game. At one point Kessens scored 5 in a row to cut the App. State lead from 8 to 3, and was promptly pulled from the game. Our substitution patterns continue to baffle me.
Those of you who have been around for a while may remember Ron Steele's comments from last year regarding how guys playing scared can hurt their game, ie that they are afraid to make mistakes for fear of losing playing time. I think we are seeing a bit of that right now with Coleman and Hale. Coleman is a freshman, he's going to make some mistakes, but he's at his best when he plays wide open. Hale is more experienced, but both were taken out of the game following turnovers and defensive lapses respectively. Moreover, in these last few games the team as a whole seems a lot more calculating on offense, hesitant to shoot or quickly move the ball. We need to let the guys play, live with the mistakes, and get the tempo back up on offense.
This was the last game before Christmas, and with the UCLA game looming, while it's still disappointing, it's certainly not surprising that we came out flat. Levi played a solid game, but as the captain I would have liked to see him be a more vocal leader in this game, and do something to energize and focus his teammates. He got called for 5 seconds late in the game which gave App State a chance for the win. The last few years we've lost at least one of these December games that has killed any hopes for suspense on selection Sunday. Thankfully, the guys found a way to win and got the stop at the end to avoid another disaster. I've criticized Coach Grant's timeout management in the past, but will give him credit for using every single remaining one and giving the Mountaineers different looks, while evaluating their lineups, on the final play.
The crowd was sparse, but a little better than Friday night. I would estimate maybe 2,000 or so. They actually got into the game and gave our guys a boost when things were tight in the second half.
Up next, the UCLA Bruins come in Sunday night for a 5:30 pm tipoff on ESPNU. They will be looking to avenge their embarrassing loss to Kentucky. It's a chance to watch our Tide against one of the historically great programs in college basketball, so hopefully we'll have a nice crowd. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.