It was anything but pretty, as Huggins’ squad earned a much-needed win despite scoring only seven points in the final 7:59 of the contest.
It took everything West Virginia had to make that happen, however. The visitors held a lead of as many as 14 points in the second half at 58-44 before DePaul made its run, using an 11-2 surge to get back into contention.
From there, the Mountaineers’ offensive struggles allowed the hosts to really make things interesting.
A Jeremiah Kelly 3-pointer with about 1:30 left tied things up at 63-63, sending the small crowd at Allstate Arena into a frenzy. But WVU point guard Truck Bryant answered, quickly getting downcourt to beat the Blue Demons’ full-court pressure. He scored a layup, was fouled, and made the bonus free throw to make it 66-63.
Those three points, which came with 1:18 to play, gave Huggins’ squad a total of six points since Bryant had hit a jumper with 7:59 left to make it 60-48.
But DePaul’s Brandon Young made two free throws with 49.9 seconds left to make it 66-65. West Virginia added one more point on a John Flowers free throw with nine-tenths of a second remaining, just after Young had missed a long 2-point shot that would have given his team the lead.
A last-ditch Blue Demon effort at a long pass and a game-winner was for naught, as WVU’s Cam Thoroughman intercepted the inbound and the horn sounded, giving Huggins and company a much-needed win.
It was a game that was of pivotal importance to both teams, as both the Blue Demons and West Virginia started 0-2 in Big East play. But it was Huggins’ squad, and not head coach Oliver Purnell’s first DePaul team, that avoided moving to 0-3.
But Huggins clearly didn’t feel like much of a winner afterwards, as his interview with the Mountaineer Sports Network prompted play-by-play voice Tony Caridi to remind listeners that WVU had indeed won the game after the head coach’s comments had concluded.
“If anybody wants to learn how to lose a game, just watch that,” Huggins said, clearly exasperated with a team that has shown few of the traits that characterized the West Virginia team that advanced to the Final Four a season ago.
“It’s mind-boggling to me that we can do the things that we do. And it’s one thing, you know, you say, ‘You’re playing some young guys.’ Well, no, I’m not. I’m playing a three-year starter at point [Bryant] and a four-year point guard [Joe Mazzulla]. Those two guys are in the game.”
Experience again couldn’t help a team that turned the ball over 16 times (leading to 22 DePaul points) and had defensive lapses at critical points (allowing the hosts to shoot 50 percent from the field in the second half), allowing the Blue Demons to turn what appeared to be headed for a blowout into an interesting contest down the stretch.
“We have a hand-off in the corner, we get trapped and lose the ball,” Huggins said. “I don’t know [why]. Go back and look at tape. We’re playing 2-3 zone because we can’t guard a soul. We can’t guard a soul. So we’re playing 2-3 zone and they shoot two layups against a 2-3 zone, which I’ve never seen before. I’ve never seen two consecutive layups against a 2-3 zone.”
“I told them at halftime, ‘You’re on pace to turn it over 20 times.’ And we did, and it wasn’t their press, guys. Presses, sometimes they speed you up in the half-court. It wasn’t that. We’d already beat the press and we’re already ready to get in something, and then we took off with it. It wasn’t their press that speeded us up and caused that.”
The Mountaineers led 34-31 at halftime, but they displayed many of the traits that have frustrated Huggins throughout the early portion of the season in the process.
WVU gave away possessions, turning the ball over nine times in the opening 20 minutes, breaking the Blue Demons’ full-court pressure easily at times but struggling to do so at others.
It failed to control the glass on its defensive end, allowing DePaul eight first half offensive rebounds, which led to several easy put-back baskets.
It settled for long jump shots, as 11 of its first 22 field goal attempts were 3-point tries and it didn’t so much as attempt a free throw in the first half.
But because those shots fell early in the half -- indeed, Casey Mitchell had 13 points in the first 10 minutes of the contest on the strength of three 3-pointers -- Huggins’ squad jumped out to an early eight point lead and held an advantage of as many as nine points after Kevin Jones made a midrange jumper to make it 26-17.
The Blue Demons answered that basket with a quick 7-0 run to draw within two points at 26-24. But Deniz Kilicli scored six of his eight first half points (including a pair of his trademark hook shots) in a quick spurt after that to keep the hosts from taking the lead.
A Jones put-back of a Kilicli miss made it 34-31 at the break. West Virginia held that edge largely because of the way it outshot DePaul, converting on 53.6 percent of its field goal attempts compared to 35.5 percent for Purnell’s team.
For WVU (9-4, 1-2), Mitchell had 18 points on 7-of-13 shooting to go with three assists and four rebounds. Kilicli added 14 more critical points, playing with great efficiency by missing only one of his eight field goal attempts. Jones had 13.
Cleveland Melvin led DePaul (6-9, 0-3) with 17 points, and Young added 12.
The Mountaineers will have the chance to even up their league record when they travel to Washington, D.C. to take on No. 13 Georgetown, which will come into Saturday’s game at the Verizon Center still smarting from a 61-58 loss to St. John’s on Monday night.
“Hopefully we’ll play better, and in all honesty, we have played Georgetown very well in the three years I’ve been here,” Huggins said. “We’ve played them very well. So we look forward to going down there. If we go down there and get a win, we’re 2-2 in the league and we’ve got a home game [after that, against Providence].”
That was about all the optimism Huggins could muster on another night that left the long-time head coach largely confounded.