The West Virginia Mountaineers were in a bad spot Wednesday night when star big man Oscar Tshiebwe fouled out with 7:26 left to play against Gonzaga in the Jimmy V Classic.
At that point in the game, with WVU trailing the top-ranked Bulldogs 65-62, all three of the Mountaineers’ primary big men had picked up at least four fouls.
Tshiebwe picked up his fourth foul with 11:15 left to play in the second half and immediately subbed out of the game. In the time the sophomore was on the bench, senior Gabe Osabuohien was whistled for his fourth foul at the 9:29 mark and junior Derek Culver picked up his fourth with 9:13 left to play.
Not wanting to give up too much size to the No. 1 team but also being cautious with his forwards, WVU coach Bob Huggins turned to 6-foot-10 true freshman Isaiah Cottrell to play crucial minutes down the stretch against the nation’s top team.
It was just Cottrell’s fourth career game. In the team’s three games at the Crossover Classic in South Dakota, Cottrell appeared in all three but played a total of just 13 minutes. Just two days prior, on Monday, Huggins lamented the fact that Cottrell, and the team’s other newcomers, did not get to play much in South Dakota.
“Quite honestly, we didn’t get to see enough of them,” Huggins said. “We had to try to win the games and you feel a whole lot more comfortable with guys who’ve been there before. We tried to get them in as much as we could get them in but they didn’t get enough playing time.”
Cottrell checked into the game after Osabuohien’s fourth foul, with just under nine and a half minutes left to play and quickly scored a couple points on a pair of free throws. A few minutes later he also scored on a turnaround jumper in the paint.
At the 3:22 mark, Huggins attempted to sub Osabuohien back into the game, taking Cotrell out. However, Osabuohien committed his fifth foul and was headed back to WVU’s bench just a few seconds later and Cottrell came back out. He made one final jump shot to pull WVU within three, 80-77, but the Bulldogs eventually pulled away, winning 87-82.
Cottrell finished with 11 minutes, six points, both career-highs and an assist, a block and a steal. Huggins said Cottrell played well but maintained that the freshman needs more in-game experience.
“He made a couple of mistakes defensively, we probably need to spend more time with him because he’s a skill guy,” Huggins said. “He can shoot it and he can pass it and we need to spend more time with him, getting him in [games]. It’s hard [to play newcomers] when you go and try to win a tournament and then you’re going to play the number one-ranked team in the country.”
One person impressed by Cottrell’s effort was Culver, who stuck in the game for the final seven and a half minutes despite playing with four fouls.
“I saw a lot of resilience from Isaiah. He’s younger, he’s not really as tough as the older guys but he showed me a lot of toughness today,” Culver said. “To be thrown into the fire with the number-one team in the country and hit the ground running, hats off to Isaiah because he did what he had to do. He did what was asked of him. I can’t be upset with Isaiah at all.”