But the Tigers just wouldn't go away -- not even after playing a First Four game only a little more than 36 hours before and arriving in Florida so late that they didn't look at a single moment of West Virginia film as a team until Wednesday afternoon.
They showed no signs of fatigue in the final minutes, going on a 10-2 run to trim the Mountaineers' lead from 72-61 all the way down to 74-71 on a pair of Tanner Smith free throws with 1:49 remaining.
Pepper stole the ball away from Smith near mid-court, outraced the Clemson guard to the loose ball and rolled in a layup to make it 78-71. Just seconds later, he took the ball away again, this time from CU's Demontez Stitt, and again got to the ball quickly enough to position himself for a turnaround half-hook that fell through, pushing the lead back to nine points.
Tigers head coach Brad Brownell called timeout to try to calm his players and set up strategy for a last-ditch comeback attempt in the final minute. But even that break in the action did nothing to help matters, as Pepper pilfered the ball from Stitt again.
This time, WVU had to inbound the ball, but Clemson (22-12) had to foul, and Mountaineer point guard Truck Bryant made a free throw to all but seal the outcome.
"We were mixing up defenses and we were getting in the passing lanes and stuff, so they were -- I don't think they were ready for it," Pepper said. "And we just caught them off guard and got a few steals."
"[The steals] certainly iced the game," Brownell said.
If Pepper's play put the game on ice, it was that of several of his teammates that made a comeback from a double-digit deficit in the first half possible and started Clemson's meltdown.
West Virginia (21-11) still trailed 40-31 with only 2:13 remaining until halftime and had never managed to so much as tie the game after Clemson scored the first two points of the contest. But the Mountaineers scored the last nine points of the half, capping the rally with a 3-pointer from Kevin Jones just before the horn to make it 40-40.
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"I think [the late run] just gave us a lot of momentum going into the second half. We were down basically the whole first half, and it gave us a lot of confidence coming out of that locker room."
The momentum, indeed, carried over. WVU started the second half on a 12-3 run, taking a 52-43 lead when Truck Bryant made a 3-pointer while being fouled and added the bonus free throw.
"They got three or four put-backs, and those were probably the game changers," Brownell said. "Easy baskets like that really take a lot of pressure off your offense.
"That's why free throws and put-backs are so important, because they don't make you make shots, you don't have to make plays. You just lay it in or you go to the free throw line and make it. There were way too many free throws [WVU made 25-of-31 foul shots] and way too many put-backs for us to win today."
It appeared as though the Mountaineers would cruise, as they held a lead of at least eight points for almost the duration of the half. Clemson did make the one final rally, but Pepper's steals put any thoughts of a miracle finish to rest.
"He's never played on the top [of the 1-3-1 zone defense] until, whatever it was, three weeks ago maybe," Mountaineer head coach Bob Huggins said of Pepper. "He was always playing on the wing before. We were just trying to get him to stay between the ball and the next guy.
"I honestly didn't even see what happened the first time. I was looking at what they were doing on the baseline, I wasn't watching the ball. But those [steals] were big for us. That's kind of what Devin [Ebanks] did a year ago for us. Devin made a bunch of plays at the top of it for us."
Bryant led five Mountaineers in double figures with 19 points, including an 8-of-9 performance from the free throw line. Jones added 17 more, while Joe Mazzulla scored 12. Pepper and Deniz Kilicli led a strong bench effort, scoring 10 and 11 points, respectively.
With the win, West Virginia advances to Saturday's third round games at the St. Pete Times Forum.
It will face Kentucky, the region's No. 4 seed and a team WVU beat in the East Regional final last season. Tip-off time will be determined by CBS and Turner Broadcasting after all of Thursday's NCAA Tournament games have concluded.