It wasn't just Frank Young's game-high 22 points that led to his being named player of the game in West Virginia's 81-71 smacking of #9 Connecticut on Saturday.
Of course, Young's career high point total was certainly a major factor in the honor. The steady senior, whose shooting helped stake West Virginia to its early lead, hit four of his nine three point attempts, and was 7-14 from the field overall. He also made four of his six free throw tries, and snared four rebounds in 35 minutes of action.
However, it was Young's influence on his youthful teammates that perhaps had just as big an influence on the game. Faced with wildly aggressive defensive play that bordered on thuggish, West Virginia's freshmen and inexperienced sophomores could have cracked. Instead, Young, along with point guard Darris Nichols, continually reminded their brethren to remain calm and focus on the game rather than respond to the clutching and grabbing that characterized UConn's defensive game plan. In helping his team keep its composure, Young certainly contributed as much to the win as he did with each of his 22 points.
WVU's free throw shooting, especially in the second half, was one of the key factors in the contest. Despite the continued whining and moaning of UConn head coach Jim Calhoun (which finally resulted in a technical foul), the officiating crew of Tim Higgins, Reggie Greenwood and Doug Shows called the numerous holds and shoves that the Huskies gave out, especially in the second half. West Virginia responded by making 20 of 27 in the final 20 minutes to keep UConn at bay.
In fact, made free throws were the final difference in scoring in the contest. Both teams had 26 field goals and six three-pointers, but West Virginia made 23 free throws, as opposed to Connecticut's 13.
UConn's pressure defense gave the Mountaineers some trouble in bringing the ball upcourt and getting into its halfcourt offense, but two factors helped the home team weather the storm. The first was the result of foul trouble for starting guard Alex Ruoff, who played just 28 minutes. Freshman Devan Bawinkel, substituting for Ruoff, had some problems with the pressure, and committed three turnovers in nine minutes of action. In the second half, Beilein inserted Joe Mazzulla in the backcourt to pair with Nichols, giving WVU a bit better ballhandling at the two spot. That move helped neutralize some of UConn's defensive pressure, as both Nichols and Mazzulla were able to drive the ball against the tight defensive pressure applied and create open shots for teammates. The duo also combined for 10-10 shooting from the free throw line, as they made the Huskies pay for their overactive defense.
The second was presence of mind on the part of Nichols, who didn't force anything when UConn tried to take him out of the game. The Huskies sold out to keep the ball out of Nichols' hands, and did a good job of it, especially in the first half. It would have been easy for Nichols to get frustrated and try to get the ball and force the action, but he did not. Instead, he ran his cuts and yielded the ball to the two, with good results. Ruoff and Mazzulla combined for seven assists against just two turnovers, and also demonstrated that the Mountaineer offense can't be shut down by taking the ball out of Nichols' hands.
WVU also showed that it won't be intimidated by bigger, stronger teams. West Virginia drove the ball at UConn's shot blockers on several occasions, and although the Huskies did get three rejections, the Mountaineers scored on several swooping drives and finger rolls, as well as on Joe Alexander's baseline drive for an impressive dunk. By challenging UConn's shot blockers, West Virginia not only got to the free throw line numerous times, but also made the Huskies defend all over the court.