In a game that was a match-up of two of college basketball’s premier coaches, it was Wildcat head man John Calipari’s halftime adjustments that turned the tide of Saturday afternoon’s game at the St. Pete Times Forum.
Having watched his team get obliterated by WVU guard Joe Mazzulla yet again in the first half (the Mountaineer senior had 15 points by halftime after scoring 14 in the second half of the teams’ Elite Eight game, won by West Virginia, a season ago), Calipari put long-armed guard DeAndre Liggins on Mazzulla in the second half.
Mazzulla scored only five points after halftime. And his teammates didn’t fare much better.
“In the first half, we let him do what he want. He had some uncontested lay-ups,” Liggins said of Mazzulla. “I just wanted to make it tough for him in the second half, which I did.”
That move, along with some misses on open looks for the Mountaineers, conspired to slow down the same offense that had ripped through Kentucky for 41 first half points.
West Virginia (21-12) scored only 17 points in the first 19:28 of the second half and went without a point for the first 6:13 of the period (missing its first seven shots from the field), allowing UK to turn a 41-33 deficit at the break into a 44-41 lead in short order.
“We knew they were going to come out strong, and we had talked about trying to weather that storm in the first four or five minutes,” Mazzulla said. “We didn't do a good job.”
But WVU rallied. It took a four-point lead at 55-51 when Truck Bryant made a layup with 7:37 left, forcing Calipari to take a timeout to regroup his charges.
Once more, the Wildcats’ defense stiffened. They allowed only one field goal from that point until Casey Mitchell made a 3-pointer with 14 seconds remaining (a Kevin Jones jumper with 2:04 to play). By the time Mitchell jumped to sink that trifecta, his team was trailing by nine points and the outcome was no longer in doubt.
“I think we took a lot of rushed shots,” said Jones, a WVU junior, of his team’s offensive struggles in the second half. “We had a lot of unforced turnovers that could have been avoided.
“I mean, [UK] had good help [defense] deep for the most part, but we definitely did rush a lot of things in our offense, whereas in the first half we were just running the offense real good and passing the ball around.”
While the West Virginia offense struggled, the Wildcats started to take control, relying on their star freshman guard Brandon Knight. He was spectacular all afternoon in scoring a career-high 30 points.
When Knight one one of his teammates missed, forward Josh Harrellson was there, grabbing four of UK’s eight second half offensive rebounds. They parlayed that into an 8-2 lead in second-chance points in the second half (the Mountaineers led that stat 7-0 at halftime) and into 19 free throw attempts in the second half (they had only five in the first half and WVU shot only 16 free throws all game).
“We had them going in the first half,” said Jones. “We kind of stopped them for the most part and got them out of what they wanted to do. In the second half, we just let them get out in transition, get easy baskets, and their key players started getting into the flow of the game.”
Harrellson, a senior who didn’t play at all in the teams’ meeting in the Elite Eight last year, had 15 points on 7-of-10 shooting. Freshman forward Terrence Jones added 12 points (taking only five field goal attempts to do so) and 10 rebounds for UK, which advanced to the Sweet 16 for the 16th time since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
“There's a reason why everybody recruits those guys -- they're pretty good,” said West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins. “Terrence Jones made some huge plays for them, some huge baskets. They're talented. They're really, really talented.”
It was only Calipari’s second-ever win against Huggins, his good friend.
“I just wished him good luck,” Huggins said. “I told him go win the thing.”
For WVU, Mazzulla’s career-high 20 points led the way. He scored a then-career-high 17 in the teams’ Elite Eight match-up last season.
Bryant added 15 more points, but he had only four after halftime. Casey Mitchell, with 11 points, was the only other Mountaineer in double figures.
Kentucky (27-8) will play in the East Regional semifinals next week in Newark, N.J., where it will play the winner of Sunday’s game between top-seed Ohio State and George Mason.
But West Virginia’s seniors -- John Flowers, Mazzulla, Mitchell, Cam Thoroughman and Jonnie West -- saw their college careers come to an end with the loss.
“[Losing] is harder this time of year because of the finality of the whole thing,” Huggins said.