It was a wild finish to what had been a competitive game to watch, even if it wasn’t the most elegant of basketball at times.
West Virginia (13-6, 4-3) scored only 17 points in the second half, allowing the host Cardinals to quickly charge back from what had been an 11-point deficit. Possession after possession ended with missed shots or turnovers from the Mountaineers down the stretch, as WVU went through a stretch of 13:41 without a field goal.
“In the second half, we rebounded great. We played tremendous defense,” said Cards head coach Rich Pitino.
“It’s not easy to come back. When you get down to West Virginia by that many points, it’s not easy coming back.”
But in stretches, U of L made it look easy. A 17-1 run ensued, as Pitino’s squad turned a 42-31 deficit into a 48-43 lead on the strength of three quick 3-pointers and a technical foul whistled on WVU coach Bob Huggins for arguing with the officials.
Even then, the drought wasn’t over for the visitors. But by battling to get to the basket, the Mountaineers earned enough trips to the free throw line to keep things alarmingly close for the 21,957 red-clad fans at the new KFC Yum! Center.
Indeed, when reserve guard Dalton Pepper finally ended that streak of field goal futility with a 3-pointer with 1:29 to play, WVU was still somehow only down one point at 53-52.
The restless crowd only became more upset when West Virginia forward Kevin Jones made a teardrop floater in the lane with 38.9 seconds left, giving the visitors an improbable 54-53 lead.
The Louisville (16-4, 5-2) faithful’s angst reached a boiling point when Terrence Jennings, who received a soft lob pass and was wide open near the basket, somehow missed a quick shot on the other end, and the Mountaineers rebounded.
Truck Bryant was fouled and went to the line with a chance to push the advantage. But the junior point guard missed both of his free throws -- the second time he came up empty on a trip to the charity stripe in the final minutes, giving Louisville another chance with.
Siva made sure it counted.
He looked for teammate Preston Knowles (an odd decision from Pitino, considering Knowles was only 3-of-16 from the floor), who was well defended, before taking matters into his own hands. The sophomore guard from Seattle drove into traffic and put up a running, twisting, underhand scoop that hit high off the glass and fell through with 4.5 seconds left.
“We should have pushed him [left],” Huggins said. “We were supposed to push him [left], but he made a hard shot.”
WVU had one last desperate attempt, but Pepper’s running 3-pointer (shot a bit earlier than it needed to be) wasn’t close, and several Mountaineer players fell to the floor at Denny Crum Court in frustration. They had lost.
There were many questions in the aftermath and many things West Virginia certainly had to regret.
Huggins’ technical, picked up in frustration, led directly to a single free throw from Knowles -- enough to make the difference in what was ultimately a one-point game.
And then there was the coach’s surprising decision to play only seven players, partially as a result of the departure of sophomore forward Dan Jennings and the suspension of senior guard Casey Mitchell. But even while the Mountaineers endured that stretch of nearly 14:00 without a made basket, Huggins never substituted guard Jonnie West, one of the team’s best shot-makers, into the lineup.
He didn’t feel like answering any questions about that decision afterwards.
“I’ll take care of that,” Huggins said. “I’ll take care of who I put in a game and when I do, if that’s okay with you.”
Early, it looked like the Mountaineers’ roster issues might be too much to overcome. WVU played lethargically in the opening minutes, and the hosts jumped out to a one touchdown lead of 14-7 before the game was even six minutes old.
But that all changed in a hurry thanks to an inspired offensive effort from Joe Mazzulla. He reeled off seven straight points after Bryant hit a pair of free throws, giving West Virginia a 16-14 lead.
Surprisingly, that lead only continued to grow. That 9-0 run became a 17-2 spurt, punctuated emphatically by a powerful put-back dunk from (of all people) Pepper, playing more extensive minutes because because of the various alterations to the Mountaineers’ typical rotation.
Pepper, whose season-high coming into Wednesday night’s contest was 10 points (tallied in each of the first two games of the year, against Oakland and Davidson), had seven by the time the teams headed to the locker room for halftime. He ultimately matched that season-high with his late 3-pointer.
That was a welcome contribution for Huggins, but it was Mazzulla who stole the show. Apparently, the fifth-year senior point guard loves playing against teams from the Bluegrass State.
The Johnston, R.I., native had 18 points in the first half on 8-of-10 shooting from the field. That was good enough to best his previous career high of 17, set in last season’s Elite Eight victory over Kentucky.
By halftime, jokes were already circulating at the KFC Yum! Center that if the Mountaineers were to defeat U of L, the Kentucky State Police would escort the team bus to the state line and order the point guard not to ever enter the commonwealth again.
That didn’t come to pass, but Mazzulla certainly did his part early to make it happen, and West Virginia went into halftime with a stunning 37-26 lead. But the point guard didn’t score again, and the Mountaineers struggled without his offense to rely on.
“What was happening was we were giving him his left hand and going for the ball-fake,” Pitino said. “You know, we were really concentrating on stopping other people. Not that we don’t have respect for Mazzulla -- we do. But that’s probably the highest point total in a half he’s had in his career, and that’s a tribute to his good play. But we knew where he was in the second half.”
“They jammed it in,” Huggins said of the Cardinals’ zone defense. “[Mazzulla] couldn’t get it at the rim. He had a couple shots that didn’t go down, kind of laid on the rim. You have to make some shots. There’s nobody in this league that’s going to let you shoot layups the whole game. Except maybe us. We do once in a while. We’re very charitable.”
Even without scoring a point in the second half, Mazzulla’s 18 points were good enough to lead all scorers. Pepper added 10 more, and Bryant had nine despite shooting only 1-of-8 from the field.
Siva was the hero for the Cards with 14 points. He didn’t miss any of his five field goal attempts. Forward Chris Smith led the team with 15 points, while Knowles added 10 in spite of his own shooting struggles.
The Mountaineers will continue a tough week on the road in Big East Conference play when they travel to Huggins’ old stomping grounds in Cincinnati for a contest this Saturday against the Bearcats.