In the win over UConn on Wednesday, West Virginia had to respond to several different Husky challenges. Each time, it was able to do so, and an examination of WVU's successful responses might provide some clues as to how it could enjoy postseason success.
The first came early in the game, when UConn trimmed an 11-2 deficit to just two points and appeared ready to silence a roaring Coliseum crowd. West Virginia responded with big plays from guards Joe Mazzulla and Casey Mitchell, who hit long-range jumpers around a dunk in transition from John Flowers. That pushed the lead back out to nine points. After UConn again battled back to tie the game, another pair of threes, from Mazzulla and Dalton Pepper, gave WVU a two-point lead at the break.
West Virginia fans have seen hot shooting streaks from this team before this year, but one constant has been the fact that they rarely last the entire game. WVU made four threes in the opening 20 minutes, all of which played a part in its responses, but it hasn't been able to count on great outside shooting for consective games, or even a single game. Therefore, most observers in attendance wondered if WVU would be able to answer UConn charges in the second half if, as expected, the Huskies didn't fold.
That period played out a bit differently than the first, in that there weren't the big runs back and forth, but rather a series of possessions where the teams traded baskets like punches in the final round of an MMA fight. UConn's Kemba Walker hit a three to bring UConn within one point early in the half, but Mazzulla responds with a pair of free throws. Husky Jeremy Lamb tied it up with a three, but Casey Mitchell countered with a pair of free throws. UConn scored, Cam Thoroughman hits a lay-up. Shabazz Napier went off with three straight scores, but Kevin Jones countered with a pair of hoops of his own.
Starting to see a pattern here? West Virginia's strength in this game, aside from the fact that it made some close range shots, was to be found in the fact that just about everyone, up and down the lineup, contributed. When Mazzulla was hot early on, he carried WVU, just as Casey Mitchell, Kevin Jones and even John Flowers have done at times this year with scoring outbursts. But West Virginia is truly at its best when everyone is contributing, because it doesn't have the sort of players that can put up 20 points night in and night out. When it happens, great. Ride it for all it's worth. But the WVU team that stands and watches one player score the majority of its points isn't the team that is going to go far in the Big East or NCAA tournaments.
The questions and challenges kept coming from UConn throughout the second half. But every time, there was WVU with an answer as quick as IBM's Watson on Jeopardy! Walker and Napier hit four free throws, but Deniz Kilicli canned three of his own. From there, UConn finally was held to a few empty possessions, and WVU hit a big shot off an offensive rebound and made its free throws to secure the win. But the key, as much as those late scores, was the fact that the Mountaineers kept responding to UConn makes, and didn't dig itself a big hole.
Not counting Walker's final second 3-pointer, UConn scored on 12 possessions in the second half. West Virginia immediately responded with a score on eight of its ensuing possession, thus never allowing the Huskies the chance to build a scoring run and the momentum which they typically ride to wins. That also kept the Mountaineers out of the long scoring droughts that have plagued them this year, and kept them from falling behind by more than one point in the second half.
Whether that was a psychological boost is hard to determine, but there's no doubt that West Virginia had all the answers in the game. It now knows that it can counter anything good teams can throw at it, and it doesn't have to be just one or two players formulating the responses.
If ever a team can be greater than the sum of its parts, it's this one. Even though its still mid-semester on campus, this squad has already faced the equivalent of a final exam. It has the answers, and if it can continue to respond as a team, there's no reason that it can't make good runs in the two tournaments left to come.