College of Charleston’s Willis Hall hoping to make up for lost time

College of Charleston's Willis Hall, left, pulls down a rebound over Baylor's Isaiah Austin (21) in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game on Saturday, Nov. 24, 2012, in Waco, Texas. (AP Photo/Waco Tribune Herald, Rod Aydelotte)

A year ago, College of Charleston forward Willis Hall sat on the bench at the KFC Yum! Center and watched helplessly as the Cougars lost to nationally-ranked Louisville.

This year, Hall is hoping to be a difference-maker against the Cardinals.

The Cougars take on No. 5 Louisville tonight beginning at 9 p.m. at TD Arena. The game will televised nationally by ESPNU.

Hall missed the entire 2011-12 season when he suffered a season-ending knee injury during preseason practice. Hall, reduced to spectator status last December, sat restlessly on the Cougars bench, willing his teammates to pull off the upset. But in the end, the Cardinals, who were ranked No. 4 at the time, had too much depth and talent and came away with a hard-fought 69-62 victory.

It was a bitter pill for the junior forward to swallow.

“I love to play the game, so it doesn’t matter who we’re playing, I hate to miss a game,” Hall said. “To miss that game last year against Louisville was especially tough because it was a big game, and you think about the ways maybe you could help your teammates. I’m glad I’m finally healthy again and can’t wait for (tonight).”

Hall’s recovery from a torn ACL got off to a sluggish start at the beginning of the season. In the season opener against Towson, he came off the bench to play 17 minutes, scored six points, but fouled out. He wasn’t much better against St. John’s when he played only five minutes and scored two points.

“I think Willis would be the first to admit he didn’t play very well in the first two games of the season,” said College of Charleston coach Doug Wojcik. “I think a part of that was just getting confidence that he was fully recovered from the ACL injury.”

But when preseason All-Southern Conference forward Trent Wiedeman injured his ankle in the second half against Auburn, Hall knew his role would change. The following game against Boston College, he started, scored eight points, hauled down 11 rebounds and gave the Cougars a toughness in the paint they had lacked in the first three games of the season.

“I try to prepare for every game the same,” Hall said. “Coming off the bench or starting, it doesn’t matter. Your mindset has to be the same because you never know when you are going to be called on to contribute.”

Hall had his best performance of the season — 19 points and 12 rebounds — in the Cougars’ 56-54 SoCon opener against Elon on Saturday night. Since the injury to Wiedeman, Hall has averaged 12.3 points and nine rebounds. The Cougars coaching staff and his teammates don’t think it’s a coincidence that the team has won four straight game as Hall’s play has improved.

“There’s no doubt that Willis has stepped up since Trent went out, but we kind of expect that from him,” Andrew Lawrence said. “He gets it done and that’s all we really care about. We’ve had three tough road games and he played great in all three games. Willis has really picked up the slack and he’s playing unbelievable right now.”

The 6-6 Charlotte native might not always be the most ascetically pleasing player to watch, but few can argue with the results.

“He was a man against Elon,” Wojcik said. “He’s coming up with big plays the last three or four games. I think you’re seeing his experience come through. I think a light came on for him against Boston College and he’s continued to build on that.”

A player Hall won’t have to worry about tonight will be Louisville’s Gorgui Dieng. The 6-10 center has missed the last two games with a wrist injury.

“Louisville has plenty of depth,” Hall said. “Dieng is a great player, but I’m sure they’ll have someone that can step up and be just as effective.”

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