PoG: WVU - Clemson

TAMPA, Fla. -- First West Virginia clawed back from a double-digit deficit. Then it took one of its own. Clemson answered, and the teams' NCAA Tournament second round game appeared destined for a close finish. Dalton Pepper had other ideas.

PLAYER OF THE GAME:

  • Dalton Pepper.

    The most unlikely of heroes, Pepper spent the first 37:30 or so of Thursday afternoon's game quietly working (albeit well) as part of a collection of reserves that played more minutes than they would have otherwise because of foul trouble and WVU's early issues defending and rebounding.

    But he made sure everyone knew his name by the end of the contest, coming up with three steals near mid-court in a span of 28 seconds, scoring on the first two of them to turn what was a tenuous 76-71 lead into an 80-71 game. Truck Bryant added a free throw after the third steal to make it a 10-point game with under a minute left, and the game was all but over.

    Credit head coach Bob Huggins' move to the 1-3-1 zone for some of West Virginia's defensive success in the second half (after what was an abysmal first half on that end of the floor), and sure, take note that the Mountaineers were set to go into the 1-3-1 zone on all three of the possessions that ended in Pepper steals.

    But the 1-3-1 didn't have anything to do with the steals themselves. Pepper just made a trio of tremendous plays, making timely pokes at the ball and simply out-hustling his opponent to the loose ball.

    The WVU seniors were clearly grateful for Pepper's play, mobbing him on the way to the huddle after Clemson coach Brad Brownell called timeout to regroup after the first two steals. Pepper stood in the middle of it all, his face showing no signs of emotion whatsoever.

    That's par for the course from the stoic sophomore, who had 10 points, two assists and three rebounds to go with his steals. But even if he didn't quickly recognize the magnitude of what he had done, observers did, making him a trending Twitter topic worldwide for a few minutes.

    Indeed, Pepper made a name for himself by (excuse the obvious wordplay) salting the game away.

    NET BURNERS:

  • Kevin Jones.

    Jones was the runaway leader for our top honors until Pepper put on a one-man show in the final moments. That didn't mean the junior forward's performance was any less significant at the end of things -- his 17 points and nine rebounds (four of which came on the offensive glass) were monstrous.

    The Mount Vernon, N.Y., native was particularly potent in the first half, when his team truly needed him to be.



    Kevin Jones
    As Clemson was threatening to run away with the contest before the teams even headed to the locker room, it was Jones who made a trio of crucial 3-pointers -- the third of which came just before the halftime buzzer to tie the game at 40-40.

    But even if it was in a bit more quiet manner in the second half, Jones still made plays to push his team's own advantage out to double digits. He crashed the glass and was a significant reason the Mountaineers won the second-chance points battle 20-9.

    He was, as he has quietly been for so much of the season, Mr. Everything for WVU. And for West Virginia's NCAA Tournament run to continue, he will have to be yet again on Saturday.

  • Bench play.

    Things got bad in a hurry for West Virginia, which trailed by double digits before almost before it could blink. Its best defender, John Flowers, was on the bench in less than three minutes due after picking up his second foul.

    Clemson was having a field day on offense. It was lobbing the ball inside to Jerai Grant for easy buckets. Its guards were beating their defenders off the dribble with ease. Andre Young was draining 3-pointers.

    Then the foul trouble began to mount. Two on Jones. Two on Deniz Kilicli. With Cam Thoroughman having a poor outing, who would defend Grant inside?

    Huggins was desperate enough to bring Flowers back in, a risky gambit. But Flowers and Jones avoided picking up a third foul, and when the reserves had to play for longer stretches in the second half, they thrived.

    You already know about Pepper's heroics, but Kilicli added another 11 points, scoring several tough baskets. Jonnie West hit a 3-pointer in the first half to help the team climb back. Casey Mitchell added another four points.

    Somehow, West Virginia's limited bench outscored the Tigers' reserves 28-7. It was their play that truly made the win possible despite an inspired effort from Clemson.

  • Attacking the rim.

    When West Virginia made its run at the start of the second half (when it truly took control of the contest), it didn't do so by bombing home a series of 3-point field goals as it has in other games.

    It didn't wait for Casey Mitchell or Kevin Jones or somebody else to get hot and take over.

    The Mountaineer guards, Joe Mazzulla and Truck Bryant, instead helped their team by getting the easiest of points -- free throws. WVU shot 31 of them and made 25. Three of the misses came in the final minute, when the outcome was all but decided.

    Mazzulla and Bryant combined to go 18-of-21 from the charity stripe. That was a huge reason why West Virginia managed to score 84 points (only the second time since Nov. 18 it had scored that many points in a game) despite Mazzulla's 1-of-5 performance from the field.

    Sure, the Mountaineers made shots as well, shooting 49.1 percent from the field -- their highest accuracy mark against a team from one of the "big six" conferences this year.

    But that alone wouldn't have been enough to score the points it took to beat Clemson. WVU had to get to the foul line, and it did, thanks to heady (but aggressive) guard play.


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