In a topsy-turvy league where few games come easily -- this was, after all, the same SHU team that had just beaten then-No. 9 Syracuse by 22 points at the Carrier Dome last week -- dominating performances are rare.
But this one was a mismatch throughout, even though Bob Huggins again had to use a limited rotation. And it was largely because his Mountaineers have begun to become a team capable of defending and rebounding at a high level.
The Pirates were held to 44 points, faced a deficit of 20 or more points for much of the second half and used a late rally when WVU got a bit sloppy with things to make the final score a bit closer than the game had truly been.
Regardless, the 44 points the Mountaineers allowed marked a program record for stinginess in a Big East Conference game, trumping the previous record of 46 points allowed, most recently achieved in the team’s last home game, a 56-46 win over South Florida on Jan. 23.
“They’re a terrific team defensively, and they’re hard-nosed,” said first-year Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard. “We knew we would struggle to score. I didn’t know we would struggle that much.”
And then there was the rebounding battle, where West Virginia dominated so badly in stretches that it was almost comical. At points in the second half, it appeared as though the team’s best offense was to fire up a jump shot, miss it and allow one of the other Mountaineers to go collect a rebound and score on a put-back.
“We guard pretty good,” Huggins said in a bit of understatement. “We’ve made a lot of progress defensively, and we’ve made a lot of progress rebounding the basketball. Those are two areas where we’ve made a tremendous amount of progress. We’re only going to be so good offensively, because we don’t shoot it straight and we can’t make a play off the bounce. We have to do those things [defend and rebound].”
WVU (15-6, 6-3) won the battle on the glass 56-44 overall. On one possession early in the second half, it had six chances to score as a result of five offensive rebounds. A foul on the Pirates’ Jordan Theodore allowed a chance to reset, and Kevin Jones promptly drained a jump shot to make it 35-17.
While that was a bit of an exceptional stretch, it exemplified the team the Mountaineers have become in recent weeks: one that relies on hustle plays and grit to compete against teams some teams that have more talent and others that certainly have more depth.
“We went through and charted how many loose balls we didn’t get to earlier in the year, and we showed them,” Huggins said. “A lot of it is being in position and being ready to play. We stood around a lot. You’re not going to get to loose balls when you stand around.”
Combine that stinginess and rebounding prowess with an off shooting night for Seton Hall guard Jeremy Hazell, a veritable Mountaineer killer in years gone by (he had 41 points in last season’s meeting between the teams in New Jersey), and it was a surprisingly easy night for WVU.
West Virginia still held a 20-point lead with 4:29 to go, when Cam Thoroughman bested his previous career-high by scoring on a layup, giving the senior forward 10 points.
A series of sloppy play and an 11-0 Seton Hall run ensued, however, leaving Huggins and Thoroughman a bit less happier than one might have expected after a relatively easy league win.
“Did you enjoy it? I didn’t either,” Huggins said when asked about the Mountaineers’ play in the final minutes. “We just stood around. I don’t know why we do it. I can’t explain it.
“We took bad shots. We took shots out of character for what this team has to do to be good. We don’t have guys that can dribble the ball and make plays. So we have to rely on being able to screen, being able to cut, being able to pass and make open shots. when we do that, we’re pretty good. when we don’t, we’re not very good.”
But for almost the entire game, WVU did the things it had to do to be very good.
Seton Hall (10-13, 4-7) shot only 23.1 percent from the field in the first half and 29.5 percent overall. The aforementioned Hazell, who had been a thorn in West Virginia’s side in previous meetings, was a paltry 1-of-8 from the field.
Add in the foul troubles of forward Herb Pope, who had six points at the intermission despite playing only nine minutes after picking up three personals, and the Pirates just couldn’t get much going.
They had only 17 points at halftime -- the fewest they had scored in any half this season. Their 44 points overall was also a program-low for 2010-11. The previous worst offensive outing for Seton Hall was a 52-point effort against Xavier.
The hosts, on the other hand, used their big men to generate offense. Both Kevin Jones and Deniz Kilicli had eight points apiece by halftime. Cam Thoroughman had six points by the time the game was 3:30 old. He had made a trio of field goals -- matching his previous career-high for made baskets in a game before the first media timeout of the contest.
Jones and Kilicli, particularly, factored into a pair of first half runs; the first an 8-0 burst and the second a 15-6 spurt to conclude the period, giving West Virginia a 33-17 lead by the break.
Thoroughman ultimately ended up with a career-high 10 points, showing off the skills that led former Mountaineer coach John Beilein to recruit him as a shooting guard. Jones added 13 to go with 12 rebounds. Kilicli and John Flowers each contributed another 10 points.
Jeff Robinson led Seton Hall with nine points. He shot only 4-of-14 from the field. Pope had eight points and seven rebounds.
With the win, WVU launched itself into a logjam near the top of the Big East standings -- tied with Louisville, Notre Dame and Villanova for second place in the league.
The Mountaineers will get a chance to forge ahead of the Wildcats on Saturday, as they travel to Philadelphia for a game against the 12th-ranked team in the country. That immediately precedes a contest against the league-leader, No. 2 Pitt, at the Coliseum next week.
“This league is just so hard,” Huggins said. “How do you look past Villanova? They’re top 10 in the country. Then we come back and play the team that’s probably going to be No. 2 in the country.”