PLAYER OF THE GAME:
It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.
Hopefully Dickens won’t mind a bit of blatant plagiarism (imitation is, after all, the most sincere form of flattery). But instead of “A Tale of Two Cities” Mazzulla’s game could have been titled “A Tale of Two Halves.”
The first half was the best of times. By the time WVU went to the locker room for halftime, Mazzulla had already eclipsed his previous career-high by scoring 18 points. He was what made the Mountaineer offense run, drawing defenders (Louisville even respected his pump-fake) early.
And the second half was, in some respects, the worst of times. Mazzulla had no points and three turnovers as the Cardinals’ packed-in zone defense denied him the chance to attack the rim.
Still, Mazzulla led all scorers with his 18 points. Without him, this game could have easily been the blowout some foresaw considering the roster limitations West Virginia had to deal with on this night -- it dressed only 10 players and played only seven.
To survive in the Big East Conference without Casey Mitchell, WVU will need more offensive outbursts like this from the senior point guard.
Sometimes, when more prominent players have to step aside for various reasons, it gives a chance for those who are a bit less-heralded to show what they can do.
Perhaps that was the case for Pepper, who finally showed some signs of pulling out of what has been a nearly season-long funk. He matched his season-high (set in the first two games of the campaign, against lesser foes Oakland and Davidson) with 10 points.
More importantly, Pepper was the one who finally brought West Virginia out of its nearly 14:00 drought without a field goal, burying a hugely-important 3-pointer off an inbounds play with 1:29 left to bring the Mountaineers back within a single point.
Before that, WVU had been listless offensively and, as Bob Huggins pointed out, missed enough shots to let Louisville pack its 2-3 zone in extra-tight to deny dribble penetration or passes to the interior.
That lone jump shot forced U of L to account for the possibility of another, giving Kevin Jones enough room to make the floater that gave the visitors the lead in the final minute.
As much as that, Pepper’s play was worthy of praise because he was, in the oft-used word of Huggins, “active.” He surprised just about everyone by aggressively getting to the rim in the first half for a put-back dunk.
Pepper grabbed four rebounds to go with his 10 points in 21 minutes of play. He turned the ball over only once.
It wasn’t a show-stopping performance, but it was a solid one -- the kind that could give Pepper the kind of confidence he may need, as he is more likely to play more significant minutes with Casey Mitchell suspended for the immediate future.
Head coach Bob Huggins has made a countless number of great moves and decisions during his career, but the technical foul he earned at the 5:57 mark was a crucial mistake. Granted, the play that he protested was an awful non-call by the officiating crew of Jim Burr, Wally Rutecki and Mike Roberts, and deserved at least some commentary. But with West Virginia scrambling to score points in the second half (it finished with just four field goals and 17 points in the final 20 minutes), giving away chances for free points wasn't a good choice.
On the play, West Virginia's Dalton Pepper was hounded by Louisville's Peyton Siva along the sideline in front of the Mountaineer bench. Most observers, including Huggins, felt that Siva fouled Pepper, who lost the ball out of bounds. No official made a call, however, and the ball went to the Cardinals, causing Huggins to go ballistic. Had he cut his tirade short, he might have avoided the call, but continued to rant until he received the technical. Even then, Huggins continued to yell at the crew while being restrained by assistant coach Larry Harrison.
The result? To the free throw line stepped Preston Knowles, who made the second of the two freebies. And that one point mirrored the final margin of the game.
It's not fair to blame the loss on that one play, of course. West Virginia failed to capitalize on a number of Louisville mistakes down the stretch, and had chances to put the game away. But in a game where every point counted, this was certainly a big one.
Different halves. Different results.
After a sluggish start, West Virginia played well against Louisville's zone, using a high post, some phyisical screens and drives by Joe Mazzulla to forge an 11-point lead at the break. Mazzulla's 18 points were clearly a highlight, but so too were several other statistical areas.
West Virginia snared 21 rebounds, including 11 on the offensive end, in the opening 20 minutes. It was able to turn those retrievals into 13 second chance points. Meanwhile, the longer, taller Cardinals grabbed only 12, and had a lonely bucket off its five offensive boards. Finally, WVU was able to dissect the Cardinal zone in the first half, making eight lay-ups (in eight attempts) as well as a follow-up dunk by Dalton Pepper.
Compare those results with these in the second half, and the worst of times emerge. Mazzulla, cut off by a tighter Cardinal defense, got just two shots off in the second half, missed both, and finished with the same total he started the half with. WVU managed just five offensive boards in the second half, scoring just six points off them. And perhaps worst of all, the Mountaineers missed all five of their second half lay-up attempts, and made just four field goals in the entire second half.