Thrive And Advance

NEW YORK – Joe Alexander ripped Connecticut – and in the process ripped open the record book.

The forward scored a career-high 34 points, including a dunk over Stanley Robinson that closed out the No. 15 Huskies, as West Virginia moved onto the conference semifinals with a decisive 78-72 win Thursday.

Alexander, who scored a then career-high 32 against UConn on March 1, has averaged almost 30 points per game in the four-game winning streak since and was the answer anytime the Mountaineers were pressed. He hit jumpers that swished through and banked home. He faked drives, then pulled back and knocked down. He drove and finished, then drove and dished to get teammates involved. And in the process, he became the first WVU player to score more than 30, and the first player in the last 10 years of the tournament to reach 34.

"There are some games that are very complex," Connecticut head coach Jim Calhoun said. "You wonder why you lost. This wasn't one of them. They kicked out butts."

West Virginia led throughout the second half after building a lead as large as nine in the first. UConn pulled as close as 70-65 with two minutes left. But Da'Sean Butler and Darris Nichols combined to hit three of WVU's 19 free throws before Alexander dunked with a minute left to push the edge back to 10. He then put the finisher on, taking a pass behind the defense and jamming over Robinson for the exclamation that quieted the pro Connecticut crowd.

"He's a hard guard," West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins said. "He is not a post guy. He is not a perimeter guy. So we have him on the wing. He is out on the wing guarding, he is out on the wing playing offense, he is playing off the dribble."

And West Virginia is playing through Alexander. The junior scored eight straight points in the middle of the second half to ensure WVU continued to flirt with a double-digit lead attained via a 16-2 first half run. He tallied seven rebounds, six on defense to keep UConn from domination on the glass. He hit 10 free throws and made a whopping 12 of 22 shots from the floor overall, most turning or falling away. His was the only perfection, Alexander being the lone player that failed to record a foul in a game with 50. Connecticut simply couldn't keep up – even as Alexander has slowed down.

"I would grab the ball in the past and try to move really fast," Alexander said, "try to do everything in my repertoire at once. But now the coach has gotten me to recognize that it's actually better to go slower on the court. That's the difference."

If the win wasn't a surprise, the way in which it came was. West Virginia had challenged Connecticut (24-8, 13-6) in the teams' first meeting, rallying after getting down by as many as 17 points. This time, that deficit never materialized, and neither did Connecticut's trademark pace. WVU turned the contest into a halfcourt match, building the methodic victory minute-by-minute, possession-by-possession in as much of a textbook postseason decision as Huggins has had.

The coach installed a 2-3 zone in a Manhattan ballroom last night after WVU hadn't played the variation all season. The idea was to keep A.J. Price from scoring off the dribble, or creating spacing and lanes for teammates. The guard had a team-best 22 points, doubling the output of UConn's second-leading scorers in Robinson and Jeff Adrien, who totaled 11 apiece. But the unanimous All-Big East pick failed to dictate the game the way he had in the first meeting and, other than five points in a late stretch that got UConn within five, was at least contained.

"They outworked us," said Calhoun, whose team has lost four straight Big East postseason games. "We had physical mismatches which we never took advantage of. We could not get rebounds or get ourselves going. And we were unwilling for 40 minutes to put the kind of effort you need into a tournament game."

West Virginia exploited that, grabbing three offensive rebounds on a key possession towards the end of the game and two on several others. It helped itself by routinely holding the ball until the final 10 seconds of the shot clock. The five-seed Mountaineers picked their spots, taking shots when open or driving when not. They got Alexander a touch nearly every time down the floor. And now they have been rewarded with not just a win, but a rematch with top-seeded Georgetown in the semis. It was the No. 9 Hoyas who beat WVU with a last-second block earlier this year, sending it into a tailspin that had it losing by 23 points to also-ran Cincinnati and on a buzzer-beating three to Pitt. WVU, now 24-9, 13-7 in conference, seemed to be finished, the bubble busted and tournament talk centering around the NIT.

That's no more. West Virginia responded by winning four of five, then discovered Alexander during the loss at Connecticut. Now, the Mountaineers have won four straight, eight of 12 and are not just in the NCAA Tournament, but threatening to break into the top six to seven seedings.

"They are going to get off their feet, relax and rest," Huggins said. "These guys are pretty good athletes, so they'll bounce back."

They already have.

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