West Virginia had ridden its pressure defense to four consecutive wins coming in to the final against the Huskies, but some doubt remained as to whether or not the Mountaineers could trouble a team with the ballhandling chops of UConn, which came into the game averaging fewer than 11 turnovers per outing. WVU removed any such thoughts, however, forcing 19 UConn turnovers and turning them into 17 points on the way to the tournament title.
Jonathan Holton set the tone for the Mountaineer defensive effort from the outset, stripping mouthy point guard Ryan Boatright at halfcourt and driving for a lay-up and free throw to give WVU a 3-0 lead. That scenario continued throughout much of the first half, as WVU got several steals in the backcourt and turned them into relatively easy scores. Abetted by some unforced UConn errors, WVU ran out to an early 12-5 advantage, then settled into a back-and-forth affair of high intensity that left the score at 27-20. Both teams, playing with the energy and effort normally seen in March, put up highlight plays on both ends of the court in the entertaining first half.
Midway through the first half, the press went into high gear again for WVU. A Tarik Phillip three, followed by a pair of Jonathan Holton hoops off steals, pushed WVU's lead to 34-22, and it grew again during a late stretch in which Jevon Carter (3-pointer) Elijah Macon and Gary Browne all contributed hoops to give West Virginia a 47-32 lead at the break.
"I thought we had a lot more ball pressure in the first half and did a good job of keeping it out of Boatright's hands," head coach Bob Huggins said afterward. "Sometimes we don't know what we are doing, but we play so doggone hard it helps."
At the outset of the second half, the Huskies made the run that everyone knows is coming from a quality team. A 12-3 start in the first four minutes cut WVU's lead to six at 50-44, and at that point it appeared as if the Mountaineers were ready to crumble. However, home territory favorite Gary Browne stole the ball from Rodney Purvis and hit a lay-up, which seemed to steady his team. UConn could never cut the lead to fewer than six after that, as West Virginia got contributions up and down the lineup to build its lead back to double digits. Elijah Macon hit a pair of short shots, Browne hit a huge three and Daxter Miles backed Browne's trey with one of his own to help keep the Mountaineers in front, but the big story of the second half was the takeover executed by senior Juwan Staten, who wound up with tournament MVP honors.
"After [Browne's score] I decided to put the ball in the hands of the guy that was supposed to have it, and that's Juwan," Huggins said afterward.
That turned out to be a bit of an understatement, as Staten scored eight of WVU's ten points during two-plus minutes to keep UConn and Boatright at bay. Included in that stretch was a beautiful stop and spin move on the right side of the lane that left two Husky defenders flying out of bounds while Staten hit what amounted to a six-foot set shot. He backed his 11 first-half points with ten in the second, and controlled the action over the final minutes of the game as UConn attempted to pressure its way back into contention.
Again down the stretch, WVU got contributions across the board, as Daxter Miles hit a big three, while Browne and Carter each drained a pair of free throws in the final minutes to seal the win.
Over the final 15 minutes, UConn struggled to make any shots other than those at the rim. The Huskies finished by hitting just three of their 17 3-point attempts, and were only able to move the scoreboard with close-in attempts and free throws.
"I think the press affected their shooting," Huggins said. "They have shot the ball well. Boatright was 0-4 from three and Sam Cassell was 1-6, and those guys can shoot it."
While West Virginia responded well to UConn's second half run, Huggins wasn't happy with the performance that kept them in the game.
"We kept letting them back in it for some reason. We did some dumb things and took some bad shots and made some bad transitions. But we have some guys that have some heart. When you can bring a freshman off the bench like Jevon Carter and he said 'I've got Boatright', I said let him have him."
After sparking UConn's second half surge, Boatright had just four points over the final 17:49 of the game, much of which came with Carter dogging him on defense.Staten's 21 points led all scorers, and were supported by Jonathan Holton's 12 and Daxter Miles' 10. Devin Williams, who made the all-tournament team along with Staten, had seven rebounds, as did Elijah Macon.
"I can't say enough abut minutes of Elijah Macon, Huggins noted. "He has no clue as to what he's doing yet, but he gave us good minutes."Boatright's 17 points led all Husky scorers, followed by Daniel Hamilton's 15 and Kentan Facey's 10.
WVU returns to action on Wednesday, Nov. 26, when it faces VMI in Charleston, W. Va. in a 7:30 p.m. tip.