Making It Easy

It's common sense: the easiest way to score points in basketball is to get easy baskets. That was what No. 4 Pitt did when it defeated West Virginia in the first installment of the Backyard Brawl on Feb. 7, and the same applied when the Mountaineers defeated then-No. 8 Notre Dame last Saturday.

The Panthers took control in the second half of their 71-66 win over WVU at the Coliseum by dominating in the lane.

They scored on second chances and attacked the paint with such strength that it almost didn't matter that Pitt's star Ashton Gibbs was still sidelined, and without him, head coach Jamie Dixon's club only attempted six 3-point field goals.

Gibbs is back now, and while WVU will be trying to limit the guard's effectiveness from beyond the arc, it will have to focus first and foremost on making sure its arch-rival can't just rely on easy baskets in tonight's match-up at the Petersen Events Center. "They got into the lane in the second half," Mountaineer forward Cam Thoroughman recalled. "They also had 46 points in the paint. That's just like, unheard of. You can't allow that to happen. It's tough to win any game [doing that], much less against a top 5 team in the nation."

But the script flipped in West Virginia's favor in its defeat of the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame on Saturday.

The headlines were all about Truck Bryant and his 24 points, largely the result of a rare bit of jump shooting accuracy for WVU. But it was Joe Mazzulla, the Mountaineers' senior point guard, who truly got the team's oft-stagnant offense going by slashing and driving to the basket for layups and other easy points.

"When Joe's aggressive and drives the ball in the lane and looks to score, we're a lot better team," Thoroughman said. "He's been doing that more and more here recently, and I think it's starting to show a little bit. Plus, we all just play off that aggressive attitude. Whenever you see one guy getting in there and mixing it up like that, it helps everyone else. It also gets those guys more open shots. So he's just got to keep doing it. I tell him that every day. I'm like, ‘Dude, when you do that, we're so much better.'"

The common thread from many of the Mountaineers' best performances in Big East Conference play has been Mazzulla's ability to score, as head coach Bob Huggins says, "off the bounce."

That's a trend that hasn't gone unnoticed by Thoroughman and other West Virginia players.

"Go back and look at all the games, and look at the ones where Joe drove into the lane," Thoroughman said. "Look at Cincinnati. Look at Louisville -- the first half, he drove in there scoring everything and the second half, he didn't really look to do that as much and we had a hard time scoring.

"So I think it's really important for him to stay aggressive and keep trying to get in the lane, keep creating. It's not like he gets in there and throws up bad shots and does bad things. If he doesn't score, he usually creates for someone else, gets them an open shot. So whenever they knock those down like Truck did the other day, of course we're going to have really good offense."


In heading to the Petersen Events Center, a venue where Pitt is 147-12 all-time and has won 25 of its last 27 games against Big East opponents in regular season play, WVU will be facing one of the tougher home courts in not only the league, but the nation.

But Thoroughman and the other Mountaineer seniors have come close to victory there a couple of times before, including a 98-95 triple overtime setback there last year and a 55-54 loss on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer in 2008.

Barring a meeting in the postseason, this is the last time Thoroughman and the other West Virginia seniors will face their biggest rival.

"I still want to beat them just as bad, whether it's my last meeting or just any other meeting," Thoroughman said. "It doesn't change it that much."

The forward called the Petersen Events Center "one of the craziest" places he has ever played, but stopped short of giving it the title of wildest road venue he's ever been to, instead giving that honor to Purdue.

He and other players said they almost look forward to seeing what the Oakland Zoo student section will come up with to heckle them, laughing as he recalled chants that mocked former WVU center Jamie Smalligan's appearance by calling him an "ostrich."

"They've always got something up their sleeves," Thoroughman said.

But WVU has an ace up its sleeve in head coach Bob Huggins, who has won Big East road games at a level far higher than his predecessors.

"I read something the other day where Coach Huggins is 17-17 in Big East [road games]," Thoroughman recalled. "He's tied with Gale Catlett already [in terms of Big East road wins]." Catlett was 17-43 in Big East road games in his last seven years as the Mountaineers' head coach (the program's first years in the league).

"He already has 17 wins, so Huggs really [creates] that toughness factor, that mental thing, you know."

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