The final score might imply that the Mountaineers cruised to this win with relative ease, but WVU pulled away at the end of what had been a tightly-contested game, using its “point-drop” match-up zone defense to stymie UConn and its star guard Kemba Walker.
The contender for Big East Player of the Year honors looked as confused as the rest of his Huskies teammates when West Virginia switched to that defense just after Charles Okwandu made a jump shot to give the visitors a 47-46 lead with 10:48 to play.
That came at the end of a torrent of offense from Connecticut, which was in the midst of a streak of scoring on seven of its eight possessions.
But the zone put an end to that, and WVU’s defense held the Huskies without a field goal for the next 7:58. A jumper from Shabazz Napier ended the drought, and UConn still looked to be in good position, down only 56-53.
Another dry spell ensued, though, and the Mountaineers took advantage.
Kevin Jones managed to pilfer a loose ball that ensued after a miss from teammate John Flowers. With his team still clinging to that one-possession lead and the clock ticking inside of 1:45, the percentage play might have been to throw the ball back out to a teammate and run more time -- especially considering Jones’ struggles to score near the basket.
But even though he later admitted he hadn’t so much as looked at the rim after grabbing the ball and no teammates were in position to so much as fight for any rebound that might ensue, Jones leaped into the air and, in one fluid motion, spun around and fired a short jump shot.
It fell through, whipping the Coliseum crowd of 13,241 into a frenzy and giving West Virginia a 58-53 lead.
“The thing about K.J. is he seems to make shots when you need them,” said WVU coach Bob Huggins. “He made the big 3 in the Georgetown game when they made a run at us.
“His rebound basket was huge for us ... that gave us a little bit of breathing room.”
Jones’ put-back was the start of what was ultimately a 9-0 run in the closing moments, a run that only ended when Walker, who had missed his previous eight shots from the field, finally made a meaningless 3-pointer with 14 seconds left to bring his team back within single digits.
Huggins and his players both said the turning point was the decision to switch to the zone defense, a change that cut off the ability of Walker to create offense for himself and Napier through the use of dribble penetration.
“Desperation,” Huggins said, when asked what the rationale behind the move was. “They were scoring every possession. We had to change the tempo and figure out how to get some stops.
“The biggest thing that happened is they had to run a lot of clock to get a good shot. They were coming down and getting pretty good shots early. That’s kind of how they like to play. They seemed like they got a little bit out of rhythm [after the switch to the zone].”
Without WVU in the zone defense, UConn was free to play its up-and-down style, taking advantage of the talents of Walker and Napier to score almost at will in an early stretch of the second half.
But once the zone was put into use, the Huskies’ two-man game -- Walker and Napier combined score 40 of their team’s 56 points -- was stopped. And so was the visitors’ offense.
“I think Shabazz Napier saved us early on when some of the other guys on our team looked like they’ve never played in a Big East game before,” said UConn coach Jim Calhoun. “We’re pretty deep in the season to be having that feeling.
“Bottom line is they topped us, and some of the games in the Big East come down to that. We’re a very good basketball team that, quite frankly, didn’t play tough enough tonight. That led to 36 percent shooting.”
But if the Huskies (21-8, 9-8) didn’t play with the type of energy their head coach would have liked, Huggins had to be pleased with the intensity from his WVU squad.
Whether it was Jones, who finished with yet another double-double (15 points and 10 rebounds, including several significant plays down the stretch) and some plays that were of massive importance to the outcome, or point guard Joe Mazzulla (who tied a career-high with 18 points and softened UConn’s defense with several long jump shots), the Mountaineers did what it took to earn another résumé-building win.
Mazzulla also had five assists and only one turnover. Forward Cam Thoroughman outdid him, dishing out six assists against only one giveaway.
On the other end, West Virginia’s defense held Walker, one of the nation’s most explosive players to 8-of-23 shooting from the field. The guard still had a game-high 22 points, but it wasn’t his most efficient effort considering the missed shots and the fact he only had two assists.
Napier came off the bench to score 18 points, but no other Husky had more than five.
“They won in what I would consider to be Bob Huggins’ style,” said Calhoun. “They out-toughed us.”
Both teams came in with identical 9-7 Big East records and were jockeying for position in the upcoming league tournament. But it was WVU that played like a team more desperate to fight for a first-round bye, a fight that still wasn’t won with this, its 10th league victory.
If the Mountaineers (19-10, 10-7) manage to defend their home court again on Senior Night against No. 11 Louisville this Saturday, they will earn the No. 6 seed to the conference tournament, to be held next week at Madison Square Garden in New York.
A loss, however, could still leave West Virginia playing in the first round on Tuesday, meaning it would have to win five games in five days to defend its league championship.