MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Jalen Bridges trotted onto the WVU Coliseum floor on Jan. 11, 2022 to a chorus of cheers from Mountaineer fans, shortly before the hometown star led his team to a win over Oklahoma State with 22 points.
Exactly one year later, those cheers turned to boos as Bridges returned to Morgantown with his new team, the Baylor Bears, and sent WVU’s fans home disappointed after topping the Mountaineers 83-78 on Wednesday.
“Playing here for three years, I kind of knew how it was for an opposing team to come in here,” Bridges said. “I knew they boo somebody every game, it just happened to be me tonight obviously because I went here.”
Bridges’ homecoming started strong as he opened the scoring with a layup two minutes into the game, drawing a foul in the process. He missed the layup, setting the tone for a gritty performance from the junior guard.
Soon enough, Mountaineer fans had a new bane on the Bears: Keyonte George. The breakout freshman star was a scoring machine for Baylor in the first half, adding Baylor’s next seven points to give the Bears an early lead.
“He’s really good, and the other two guys (LJ Cryer and Adam Flagler), this is their third year there, played in the final four and won a national championship. They play with a lot more confidence than we did,” said WVU coach Bob Huggins.
WVU attacked the rim to fight back, scoring in the paint and at the foul line to get back within a bucket. Finally, an alley-oop layup from Joe Toussaint to James Okonkwo cut the deficit to just a point.
Baylor kept its lead for the whole first half behind George, who logged 15 points in the first 20 minutes and nailed a buzzer-beating three-pointer to extend the Bears’ lead to six points at the half.
Both teams upped their physicality after the break, combining to commit 20 fouls in the first 14 minutes of the game. Those whistles turned into more free throw attempts for the Mountaineers, who eventually took the lead for the first time with just under 12 minutes to go.
There were plenty of heroes for the Mountaineer faithful in the second half as several of WVU’s players broke some ice-cold streaks. Kedrian Johnson, who rejoined the lineup after missing a game with a concussion, had a rough start but recovered on the score sheet as he penetrated and drew contact to get to the foul line. Joe Toussaint also heated up from the field, adding 17 of his 20 points in the game after halftime.
That push was enough to build a narrow lead, but not enough to hold onto it. The Bears also figured out how to get to the line, but they took better advantage of their chances and clawed back to reclaim the lead with three minutes to go. George, who never stopped scoring throughout the game, gave the Bears a two-possession lead with a contested three-pointer.
Toussaint fought to keep WVU in the game in the last minute of play, scoring nine of the Mountaineers’ last 12 points to stay within two buckets. Seth Wilson added a timely three-pointer as well,
Bridges logged a double-double upon his return, recording a physical 10 points and 11 rebounds, leading the Bears in the latter category. The Fairmont Senior High graduate relived some fond memories of playing at the Coliseum, even though he was the target of the fans’ ire.
“It’s one of the best atmospheres you can play in in this sport, in college basketball,” Bridges said. “And, you know, my teammates had my back tonight, and we just put our faith in the Lord that we’d go out there and play hard, and if we win, we win, that’s God’s will. We won, so that’s God’s will.”
However, the win came on the back of George, who exploded for 32 points, the high mark in his short career so far.
Tre Mitchell added a double-double for the Mountaineers, finishing with 14 points and 11 rebounds. Wilson added 11 points, nine of which came after halftime.
The Mountaineers showed improvement in several areas, edging the Bears in the rebounding battle and losing just seven turnovers. They still struggled on offense, making just 38 percent from the field, while struggling to stop Baylor’s top scorers.
We can’t contain. We’ve got to be able to finish around the rim. Seemingly, other people do, and we don’t. We can’t keep missing free throws, and we can’t keep turning the ball over,” Huggins said. “We took a little bit better care of the ball today than normal, but when you’re going to be close in every game, you can’t afford those kinds of mistakes. We didn’t guard very well. For us, we guarded better, but not good enough.”
WVU opens its Big 12 schedule with four straight losses, its first time doing so since the 2018-19 campaign. That year, the Mountaineers lost five straight to open the Big 12 campaign.
Baylor earns its first Big 12 win of the season with the victory.
WVU hits the road for its next contest on Saturday when it travels to Oklahoma to face the Sooners. Tip-off at the Lloyd Noble Center is set for noon ET on Big 12 Now on ESPN+.