Stealing The Show

TAMPA, Fla. -- For the first 38 minutes of West Virginia's second round NCAA Tournament game against Clemson, Dalton Pepper was a largely anonymous presence on the floor. But what he did in a span of 30 seconds was enough to ensure that everyone watching at the St. Pete Times Forum and around the world knew who he was.

With under two minutes remaining and WVU protecting a five-point lead (after having held an advantage of 11 points with just more than five minutes to go), Pepper poked the ball away from Clemson guards on three consecutive trips, turning two of the steals into easy baskets for himself and leading to a Truck Bryant free throw on the third.

The plays ended any thought of a Tigers comeback and allowed West Virginia to cruise to an 84-76 win on Thursday afternoon.

But for Pepper, who has come along more slowly than many expected since arriving in Morgantown for his freshman season in 2010, it also would have seemed to be a much-needed emotional lift -- a confidence-builder of the highest order.

If it was, you wouldn't know it from the soft-spoken guard's reaction. As CU coach Brad Brownell called a timeout after Pepper's second steal-and-score, the sophomore was mobbed by his teammates. They pushed him around playfully, rubbed his head in appreciation, wrapped him up in thankful hugs.

"He's capable of doing that," WVU senior forward John Flowers said of Pepper's break-out performance. "He's a long, athletic kid that gets steals. I've seen him do that before in practice and in some games. But three in a row, that was kind of surprising."

Pepper remained, as always, stone-faced. If there was any emotion inside him, it didn't show. Pepper -- easily the most reserved Mountaineer who actually sees playing time, at least with the media -- maintained a perfect poker face all the while.

If that's the just the modus operandi of a stone-cold assassin, Pepper's past apparently wouldn't indicate it in practices.

"Actually, it's the total opposite," said WVU guard Joe Mazzulla, when asked if Pepper had been similarly tough to get around in practice. "When things are going bad and we need a basket, we usually just attack Dalton."

Mazzulla was doing his best to make wisecracks on his teammate in the most public way possible (a success, as none of the Mountaineers at the podium for interviews -- including head coach Bob Huggins -- could keep a straight face), but later, he let his true feelings about Pepper show via his Twitter feed.

"Proud of @DrPep32 [Pepper's Twitter name] today," Mazzulla tweeted later Thursday afternoon. "He always plays his hardest and tries his hardest and wants to win. It was only a matter of time."

"He definitely shows up when his name is called," Flowers added. "He's a team player. He doesn't complain about playing time or nothing like that. When Coach calls his name, he's ready to get in there. That's the type of player he is."

Twitter blew up for Pepper. His name became a worldwide "trending topic" on the social media outlet -- basically meaning a ton of people around the world were posting statuses about his steals.

Fans inside the St. Pete Times Forum gave him some love as well, chanting his name in the waning moments of the game.

The irony of the most shy Mountaineer getting the most attention after the game -- seeing him interviewed by CBS television on the floor and brought up to the podium for formal post-game interviews -- was not lost on most observers.

But Pepper didn't even take the opportunity to take credit for his own heady play.

"We were mixing up defenses and we were getting in the passing lanes and stuff," Pepper said. "I don't think they were ready for [the 1-3-1 zone defense] and we just caught them off guard and got a few steals."

Huggins would have none of that, saying the switch to that defense wasn't about generating turnovers.

"I didn't do anything," the head coach said. "We went 1-3-1 to burn clock ... we thought, you know, when you go to the 1-3-1 late, it takes more time to get a good shot.

"The 1-3-1 is just to slow people down. It's not to steal the ball. It's just to slow people down. We were fortunate that Pep made a couple steals."

Huggins spoke of Pepper's recent move to the top of that defense and the way the sophomore guard has started to learn the nuances of playing that particular position, which has been done so well in the past by former Mountaineers Tyrone Sally, Mike Gansey, Devin Ebanks and others.

It might prove to be a masterful move, as Pepper has struggled to find his place on the floor at times. His 3-point shot has become less and less accurate, and even as WVU's roster became more and more limited throughout the season because of suspensions and injuries and other issues, his minutes were few and far between.

If the 1-3-1 is a way to bring Pepper into the fold more regularly and get some confidence back for the sophomore, perhaps the defense will be a more regular part of the rest of West Virginia's NCAA Tournament run.

"Coach always says to work hard and good things will happen," Pepper said. "I guess now it's happening to me."

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