In a December 2009 game at the Wolstein Center, WVU needed a last-second layup from Da’Sean Butler to avoid what would have been a huge upset for the then-No. 6 Mountaineers.
There was no need for such late heroics this time around, but West Virginia did need that burst in the final minutes to take control of what had been a hotly-contested battle all game long.
It was WVU’s answer to what had been the Norris Cole show in the second half, as time and time again, Cleveland State’s star guard weaved his way through Mountaineer defenders with ease. He scored 13 consecutive CSU points through one stretch in the second half, culminating with a deep 3-pointer that tied the game at 55-55 with 8:30 left in the contest.
But that would be the end of the Vikings’ rally from what had been a nine-point West Virginia lead. Head coach Bob Huggins’ squad would score the next 10 points, using a pair of 3-point jump shots (one each from Casey Mitchell and Kevin Jones) and an old-fashioned 3-point play from Jones to surge to a 65-55 edge.
Cleveland State guard Trevon Harmon answered with a 3-pointer of his own -- the visitors’ first points scored by someone other than Cole in a span of more than 10 minutes.
But Cam Thoroughman, an unlikely hero all game long, added a pair of free throws before Jones, who seemingly woke up from a season-long slumber late in the game, canned another 3-pointer to make it 70-58 with 2:45 to go. Any thoughts of a comeback for the previously unbeaten Vikings were all but put to rest.
Jones’ trifectas were part of an outburst of 13 second half points for the junior forward, who ended up with 15. The Mountaineers didn’t shoot a great percentage from beyond the arc (36.4 percent), but they did make eight big 3-pointers.
“I knew going into this game it was going to be a tough contest, but I thought whoever played the best defense could win the game,” said Cleveland State coach Gary Waters. “I thought they outplayed us defensively. We had too many breakdowns.
“They hit a couple 3s down the stretch that, [instead of] it being a four- or six-point game, now it’s 10. That had nothing to do with them, but it had a lot to do with us. We were breaking down.”
West Virginia (8-2) did make plays on defense when the game was in doubt, responding to Cole’s streak of points by going to a point-drop zone defense and daring the Vikings to find someone else who could score. By the time they could, it was too late.
Given the issues Huggins’ squad has had defending quick, slashing point guards, that might be a defense Mountaineer fans see more often as Big East Conference play gets underway.
“We may end up playing a lot of point drop,” Huggins said. “Joe really kind of puts people where they’re supposed to be, and Cam knows what he’s doing. K.J. hasn’t played it a lot, but he played it as a freshman. We worked on it for maybe 10 minutes for two or three days in case we needed it. We just didn’t stop their penetration very well.”
“We’ll go back to the drawing board and learn from this,” Waters added. “It’s a learning experience for our guys. We’ve got another Big East team [South Florida] coming up next, and it’s okay to go 1-1 in the Big East.”
Much like the first 12 minutes of the second half, the opening 20 minutes of the game were closely contested throughout. There were nine lead changes and six ties by halftime.
The biggest lead either team held in the period was a mere six points, which came in the most unlikely of ways: WVU reserve guard Jonnie West was on the receiving end of an alley-oop pass from Thoroughman and banked in a shot while still in midair to conclude an 11-2 Mountaineer run with 1:00 left in the half and make it 36-30.
But Cole, the Vikings’ leading scorer with 19 points, hit a long jumper just before the end of the period to make the score 36-32 as the teams headed to the locker room for halftime.
Cole’s 19 points and the 14 more contributed by center Aaron Pogue (who fouled out after 29 minutes of action) weren’t enough for Cleveland State.
That was due in large part to some big contributions from several Mountaineers. All nine WVU players who saw action scored at least three points, and both Jones (15 points, 10 rebounds) and John Flowers (10 points, 11 rebounds) had double-doubles.
Thoroughman played perhaps the best game of his West Virginia career, registering nine points and seven assists (both career-highs) to go with six rebounds and two steals in 33 minutes on the floor. Known for his propensity to pick up cheap fouls, the fifth-year senior was whistled for only two personals.
?He looked like a completely different player from the one that normally suits up in WVU’s jersey No. 2, taking Vikings defenders off the dribble on multiple occasions and tossing up an accurate alley-oop pass to West (an unlikely receiver in his own right).
“They didn’t guard him, and he’s smart enough to pass it and ball screen and do the right things,” Huggins said of Thoroughman. “It’s like I tried to explain to some guys at halftime -- there’s a reason they don’t guard you. They want you to shoot. Generally, they try to guard the guys they don’t want to have shoot it. But Cam’s been really good.”
Cleveland State (12-1) will take on the Bulls of USF next, while Huggins and company will avoid what would have been a lengthy break before the start of Big East play (which begins with a Dec. 29 home game against St. John’s) by suiting up for an exhibition contest against Walsh College on Wednesday.