In covering West Virginia University men’s basketball for 66 years, I’ve always enjoyed high-scoring games the most.
However, I really liked the Mountaineers’ 50-44 upset victory against South Florida last Saturday at Tampa, Fla. To this TV viewer, it was one of the best defensive, hardest fought contests I could recall.
West Virginia made very few mistakes in its well-laid-out game plan against the Bulls, who ranked No. 1 in the Big East in limiting opponents to fewest points.
Coach Bob Huggins had to be happy with that impressive performance, coming as it did in the regular-season finale and on the road. His players scrambled speedily all over the court, pressuring the Bulls on defense.
It gave WVU a 19-12 record, including 9-9 in the Big East standings. What’s more, the triumph undoubtedly sealed a spot for this young team in the NCAA Tournament. But Huggins had said after the 92-75 win over DePaul in the home finale that he thought 18 wins were enough.
Anyhow, the Mountaineers are now going into the conference tournament with two significant victories and boosted confidence. They will meet the winner of today’s Connecticut-DePaul game in the tournament’s second round at noon on Wednesday with ESPN televising.
Both wins indicated that the Mountaineers appear to be at the top of their game. Hopefully, it’ll carry over and help in every contest, regardless of whether it’s high-scoring or low-scoring.
Like WVU’s 2011 football team, the male basketballers got some help in seeding for the Big East tourney. When DePaul upset Seton Hall on Saturday, it enabled them to earn a first-round bye. They won’t have to play until Wednesday.
Two timely defensive plays in late crucial situations saved the day for West Virginia before more than 9,000 fans at Tampa.
One was a shot-block by senior Kevin Jones with 1:58 remaining and the other came with the score 46-44 and 39 seconds left when Gary Browne stepped into a charge which was called.
Huggins declared, “Those are two big defensive plays, and quite honestly, two big defensive plays that we haven’t gotten for quite a while.”
Browne, a 6-foot-1 guard from Puerto Rico, told reporters it was not hard making his key play. “I’ve been taking charges since I was young back in Puerto Rico and for when I played with the National Team (there).
“It’s just a matter of stepping up.”
That well may be, but Huggins recently complained that some of the younger players weren’t taking charges and he didn’t like that.
Browne played 25 minutes against USF, tallied four points, six rebounds and three assists.
Jones, a 6-foot-8 forward from Mt. Vernon, N.Y., had his 20th double-double of the season with 18 points and 11 rebounds. His career total is now 32.
Finishing the regular season averaging 20.0 points and 11.1 rebounds, Jones became only the third in Big East Conference history to wind up as the league leader in both scoring and rebounding.
The others were Troy Murphy of Notre Dame and Walter Berry of St. John’s.
“K.J.,” as he’s affectionately called, is expected to be voted Big East Player of the Year by the league’s head coaches.
Huggins, who now has 120 wins in his five years at WVU, thought his team probably had its best practice last Friday. USF was 15-1 at home before bowing to the Mountaineers.
Darryl “Truck” Bryant, the only other senior this year, made only 2 of 11 shots from the floor but was 12-for-12 in free throws and finished with 16 points. The team had its best foul shooting of the season, cashing 18 or 21 free throws.
The Mountaineers shot only 29 percent from the field but outrebounded the Bulls by 36-31. USF shot 37.5 percent.
“I feel good where we are,” Huggins stated.
Jones was the only Mountaineer making the all-Big East first team. Bryant wound up with a berth on the third team.