Defending the House

It was a bruising day at the playground, but the West Virginia Mountaineers firmly established that The Coliseum is their sandbox in an 81-71 victory over the University of Connecticut.

This was not the usual December cupcake opponent. This was the unbeaten, 9th-ranked Huskies who came to Morgantown to a rip-roaring rugged contest with the 10-1 West Virginia Mountaineers, and oh, yes, the Big East season is definitely here.

"Any time you can beat U Conn, it's a great game," grinned WVU point guard Darris Nichols.

"This is a dream come true," beamed freshman Da'Sean Butler. "It's a dream come true to play against these players and Coach Calhoun. This is U Conn, my freshman year, the first time we've beaten them in five years. It makes me look forward to the rest of the season."

Although the opening tip went to U Conn, the Gold and Blue attacked aggressively from the outset. Neither side could get their first few shots to drop, but WVU was getting all the early rebounds, and made them pay off, with a quick 4-1 lead.

The very appreciative crowd was loud and active from the beginning. "Our young kids are just as good as your young kids," you could almost hear them thinking, "and ours are definitely more disciplined." That long string of U Conn home games to open the season was doubtless valuable in bringing along five new starters, but it meant they weren't prepared for a raucous 11,903 in blue and gold who created an effective hostile atmosphere. The student section took an immediate dislike to Connecticut center Hasheem Thabeet and did its very best to rattle him as much as possible. It worked. When Thabeet complained over and over again to the officials, he was serenaded with a chant of "Stop your whining."

U Conn did indeed bring the playground, street ball game anticipated. "They were exactly what we expected," Joe Alexander affirmed. "There were hands everywhere, but we kept our cool. Frank Young kept pulling us in and telling us to keep our cool."

His teammates agreed that West Virginia's attitude was the difference in the game. "We kept our poise, which was impressive," Darris Nichols said. Da'Sean Butler chimed in, "They were really frustrated. In the second half, they started getting upset and angry and missing reads. They were smacking us instead of the ball. We tried to laugh, smile, that's all you can do – that's what Coach [Beilein] tells us. They want us to get mad and we didn't. We just stayed in our game and didn't panic."

The Huskies are messy, relying on athleticism but lacking focus. In particular, they had a lot of sloppy play around their own basket. Their Hall of Fame Coach Jim Calhoun admitted as much. "Some of our guys didn't play competitively. We don't have any McDonald's All-Americans this year. We have some very good players who didn't play well. We did not finish the kind of plays we succeeded with here last year."

WVU was able to get inside and mix it up with the nor'easters. The Mountaineers were getting their hands on a lot of balls, knocking them loose, but, at least initially, the bounces went U Conn's way. That didn't last and the Blue and Gold got their share of steals and grabs off the glass, leading the rebounding 20-19 at the half, and finishing with only 10 rebounds fewer than U Conn, 46-36.

Jim Calhoun argued that "The rebound statistics don't count. We have to dominate the glass to beat West Virginia."

Calhoun also had strong praise for the Mountaineer defense. "Pittsnogle and those players, everybody loved them, but this team is much, much better defensively than last year's."

Much of the pre-game press had centered around Connecticut's Hasheem Thabeet. The lanky Tanzanian is definitely 7'3", at least – he's half a head taller than Rob Summers – but 255 pounds doesn't go far on that long of a physique. He's skinny. Once he gets another 30 pounds and a shot, he'll be very dangerous. At this point, as a freshman, he can't always control his wings. Most notably, he blocked a shot on Darris Nichols and ended up blocking Darris as well as the ball, slamming him into the floor, then somersaulting away.

Although John Beilein complimented the officiating crew in his post-game press conference (It was a well-officiated game. They're a great crew."), the fans did not agree with his assessment, especially early in the second half. A four minute period soon after play resumed got ugly. The referees seemed intent on getting U Conn an advantage, and they were throwing foul calls right and left, but only against the Mountaineers. Alex Ruoff and Frank Young took noticeable assaults – Ruoff a shot to the chin, and Young a claw that dripped some blood from his elbow – but there were no whistles.

An extremely unpopular foul was then called on an airborne Joe Alexander who had a Husky wrapped around him as they were fighting for a defensive rebound, and "Alexander the Great," as the student banners are calling him, had to sit down with 3 fouls. Within seconds, Ruoff was also on the bench with 3 fouls, but still nothing was called on the elbow-throwing Huskies. The score closed to 46-40 before some reciprocity calls calmed down the furious fans and 3straight Connecticut clips settled things down a little. Before the game ended, both Alexander and Ruoff had 4 fouls and Jamie Smalligan had 3.

"We expected foul trouble," Beilein said. "It's hard to guard them. Devan [Bawinkel] had a tough time with their pressure, but four years ago, Jo Herber and Patrick Beilein did, too, and their careers here turned out ok. U Conn's pressure on the ball was as good as it's ever been."

After Da'Sean Butler and Darris Nichols executed two beautiful steals and the West Virginia lead climbed to 52-42 at 13:53 in the second half, Connecticut's Doug Wiggins put Joe Mazzulla on the line to convert two. The foul-laden Ruoff went back in the game to give Nichols a little rest, and the hustle and bustle continued. A steal, a turnover, another steal, and Da'Sean Butler's tidy layup filled the Coliseum with sound once again.

After the timeout, John Beilein sent all five starters back onto the court, even though two of them carried 3 fouls each. Thabeet effectively blocked a Ruoff shot, but then slammed Ruoff to the floor. The level of anger among the West Virginia faithful increased substantially. The steely-eyed Mountaineers kept their cool, but after some nonsense during the time-out, the refs called a technical foul on Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun that sent Darris Nichols to the line.

Apparently, someone slipped the officials some contact lenses in one of the second half timeouts, and Thabeet's elbow to Frank Young's chin was noticed. Frank rose to the occasion, hitting both shots, and Thabeet was forced out of action for a while with 4 fouls. A. J. Price followed with a shove to Joe Mazzulla for 2 more Mountaineer scores, but Price stayed in the game with 3 fouls. Frank Young iced the cake with a beautiful 3 from the Pittsnogle corner and the Mountaineers took their biggest lead of the day at 67-50 with 9 minutes remaining.

Alex Ruoff showed a street move of his own at 6:45 with a beautiful drive that ended with an airborne layup. The legendary Calhoun's frustration was palpable, and the Mountaineer bench was trying hard not to show its budding glee. U Conn missed an outside jumper, and when Da'Sean Butler grabbed the rebound, a U Conn player didn't even try to hide his slam dunk to Butler's chest. Butler converted 1 of 2, then Darris Nichols made a third-try layup to the relief of the Coliseum faithful.

A. J. Price's 4th foul and subsequent benching came on a body slam into Da'Sean Butler with 4 minutes left to play. Butler missed both shots, and can look forward to a few days' work at the stripe this week. Chants of "over-rated" began to waft down from the higher precincts of the Coliseum with the score at 73-58 and less than 3 minutes on the clock, then Darris Nichols hit a wide-open Jamie Smalligan under the hoop for a rim-hanging dunk and it was all over but the shouting.

West Virginia's young team really responded. Their coach beamed . "I have felt all week like I was saying ‘Wait till your father gets home,'" he joked. "I kept repeating, ‘Wait till the Big East play.' I was very proud of them. I liked the competitive edge to us this afternoon. It's exciting for the future of the program. Best of all, it's great to have a packed house and send them home happy. I know a lot of people take long trips on those winding country roads to get here, and if we lose, it's a long trip back to Magnolia or Huntington or Martinsburg. I like to send them hope happy."

RIFLE REPORTS

  • Bowl or no bowl, the Coliseum was rockin' this afternoon, doubtless helped along by a big supply of free gold WVU T-shirts laid on all the floor-level chairs, plus all the way up the extended student section, courtesy of Steve & Barry's. Nice touch, that sea of gold. And who says being on national TV is just another game?

  • The size of the crowd was noticeable not only in the stands but also on press row, where we were jammed in, certainly quite a different experience from the UMES game Thursday night.

  • During the pre-game shoot-around, Joe Alexander and Wellington Smith put on a slam-dunk show. Then, just to prove he could, a smiling Alex Ruoff launched one from above the rim. You could almost hear them singing to one another, "Anything you can do, I can do better," except that they're way too young and hip to know the lyrics to 1950s Broadway musicals.

  • It was nice to see the Mountaineers in shiny new gold uniforms. I know the gray ones are nice and all, but our regular colors are plenty good enough without embellishment.

  • Thanks, WVU students, for making the extra effort to get back to Morgantown for the Big East opener. The floor area of the student section was full more than an hour before tip-off, and the rest of the student section filled before the game started. Good job, guys. Everybody gets an extra credit point in your spring semester classes.

  • Frank Young's mother and brother traveled up from Tallahassee, Florida to spend the week with him and attend the two home games. Frank was noticeably emotional when the buzzer sounded to announce the victory.

  • They've finally found a replacement for Juice Price in the center of the pre-game huddle. Looks like Da'Sean Butler is taking over exhortation duties.

  • Today's substitute musical ensemble was the band from Carmichaels (PA) High School. They did a great job.

  • Here's a personal aside to Kevin Kinder, who's taking the sun in Jacksonville this week: the Kroger grocery cart shootout returned at 6:43 in the 2nd half, with Ashley Henderson of Morgantown winning four gift certificates.

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