Bob Huggins had some flattering words for his prized freshman, who earned his first career start at Oklahoma on Saturday.
“Jalen Bridges was one of our top three or four guys in practice a year ago,” he said. “He rebounded it, he made shots. If he can play the way he did at the end a year ago, we got a heck of a player now.”
No. 9 West Virginia played for the first time since sophomore forward Oscar Tshiebwe’s departure from the program. Bridges stepped into that starting role on Saturday in Norman and shined.
The Fairmont native was responsible for 11 of WVU’s 20 first half points. He also had three of the five Mountaineer three-pointers in the opening half.
“Leading up to the game I had nerves, I was kind of shaky, overthinking it. As soon as we got to the gym, my teammates told me just be aggressive, play your game, you deserve to be here,” Bridges said.
The former Fairmont Senior Polar Bear was anything but cold. In a losing effort, Bridges tied Taz Sherman for a team-high 19 points vs. the Sooners.
“We didn’t really have to get him ready, it was more of when he was going to start being him. In practice, he is the same guy — making shots, rebounding, playing hard, really giving it his all. That’s just who JB is. Now, it’s just starting to come into play now that there are more opportunities,” Taz Sherman said of Bridges. “I feel like this is his coming-out party. This is that one game he will look back on and say ‘I need to play like this all the time’.”
In 27 minutes of action, Bridges made seven of nine field goals and missed just one of six three-point attempts. He added three boards and two steals.
“As soon as I got out there and hit the first one, it opened up everything for me. I wasn’t nervous at all. It was just like I was playing in practice. It was a hard-fought game and that’s how every day in practice is. I approach practice every day like it is a game so when I finally got my shot today, I was prepared for it,” Bridges said.
Coach Huggins had confidence in Bridges long before he entered the starting lineup, and after Saturday’s game, he has even more.
Through the first nine contests, Bridges averaged 1.4 points and 6.4 minutes per game. Bridges will now be relied on even more as WVU’s depth at the position took multiple hits this past week. Before Tshiwebe’s departure, the Mountaineers lost freshman Isaiah Cottrell to a season-ending Achilles injury. Now, Bridges looks to help shoulder the load alongside veterans Derek Culver and Gabe Osabuohirn.
“I was just ready for the opportunity. I wish it would have been under better circumstances, but you have to be ready to step in there and produce,” Bridges said. “I feel like as I saw that first one go in, it was the green light from there, and my teammates did a great job of finding me in my spots in setting me up for wide-open threes.”
The road trip to the state of Oklahoma continues for Bridges and company as they face Oklahoma St. at 9 p.m. on Monday.