'Cats Claw Back, Best WVU In Vegas Final

LAS VEGAS – West Virginia started hot but couldn't maintain its edge as Kentucky rallied past the Mountaineers 54-43 to win the Las Vegas Invitational here Saturday at the Orleans Arena.

WVU led by 10 at the half and as many as 32-20 with 14:40 remaining, but failed to translate the lead into sustainable momentum. After slowing Kentucky's front line throughout the first 25 minutes, the Mountaineers began to allow lobs over the top. Most of them went to Patrick Patterson, who began to finish around the rim after a series of misses. Patterson, who finished with a double-double, helped force West Virginia to change how it guarded the inside. The result was a 34-11 scoring deficit over the final 14-plus minutes.

It might have been different if West Virginia made shots. The Mountaineers (4-1) missed 15 of 18 three-pointers – including nine by Alex Ruoff – and were held to 30.6 percent from the field, their worst performance this season. They missed five of 11 free throws in the season half after missing 17 of 22 in the latter period during the semifinal win over Iowa. Kentucky, meanwhile, hit all 17 of their free throws in the final half and were a blistering 10-of-20 from the floor, most from close range. The ease of shots, head coach Bob Huggins said, was triggered by a lack of everything: effort, defensive intensity, intelligent decisions and the will to run through the offense as opposed to one-on-one play.

"When you add in not making shots, that all becomes magnified," Huggins said.

That was especially true when Kentucky took its first lead at 37-36 on a pair of Patterson free throws with nine minutes remaining. West Virginia turned the ball over the next trip when Truck Bryant tried to dribble through defenders. UK (4-2) hit a two on the ensuing possession, and WVU again failed to run through its set to find a shot. It was clearly the first bout of panic for the young squad, perhaps a side affect of the free throw shooting disease Huggins said could matriculate through teams. As athletic and physical as West Virginia has become, it's clear the team still must make shots to key itself.

"It's like your playing defense for no reason sometimes," said forward Da'Sean Butler, who had nine rebounds, seven points and three steals to lead WVU. "We were up 10 forever, and you can't keep allowing a team like that to stay around. They kept coming at us."

And finally bowled over via a 19-4 run. West Virginia's 32-20 lead was erased in six minutes, but it wasn't done so in knockout fashion. The Wildcats matched a to-then game-high six points in a row, then methodically added mini-runs of five and eight to go ahead 39-36 inside eight minutes.

That pattern of lobs and finishes or fouls continued through the next three minutes as the teams played to ties of 39 and 41 before Josh Harellson and Patterson scored consecutive inside baskets. Patterson added a free throw for a 46-41 Kentucky lead with 4:15 left. The Mountaineers became sloppy at that point, abandoning looks within the motion offense for poorly created shots off the dribble. That led to two turnovers and continued UK momentum inside three minutes. WVU failed to corral a loose ball after a Wildcat miss as the shot clock expired before Joe Mazzulla committed his fifth foul with 2:10 left to send tournament MVP Jodie Meeks to the line for two. He made both and WVU never seriously threatened again.

"We played a lot tougher," Kentucky head coach Billy Gillispie said. "They just missed shots. Anytime you play really good defense you have a chance. We had too many turnovers, but we started to think better."

Ruoff finished with a team-best 10 points for West Virginia. John Flowers and Bryant added six and five, respectively, and three others had four. Meeks led UK with 19, 12 of which came off a perfect performance from the foul line. Patterson scored 15 points and tallied 10 rebounds and Harrellson had 12 points – all enough to overcome another turnover-marred outing for the ‘Cats, who had 23. The Mountaineers had 16 turnovers and could translate Kentucky's 23 into just 15 points.

"This means a lot for our team chemistry and momentum," said Patterson, who considered West Virginia out of Huntington High. "We did a great job when the shot went up of contesting it and getting to the glass on our end."

West Virginia led 26-16 at the break. WVU scored nine of the first 11 points of the game, the majority from the inside. It essentially maintained that cushion – UK never got closer than 13-10 – through the opening period, increasing it in the latter five-plus minutes by denying the Wildcats any points in that time. Leading 20-16 with five minutes left, Bryant hit a three-point for the Mountaineers. Butler and Flowers followed it with a free throw and a lay-in, the field goal coming via a gorgeous no-look transition pass from Ruoff for the last points of the half.

WVU made just 33 percent (10 of 30) from the floor, including eight misses in 10 tries from three-point range. But UK's 13 turnovers for 10 points and the Wildcats' own shooting woes (26.3 percent) helped the Mountaineers. Butler was especially active despite missing all five first-half field goals. He tallied seven rebounds, two assists and a steal while playing every minute.

Kentucky's biggest lead was 54-42 before Bryant hit a meaningless free throw with 17 seconds left for the final margin. Ruoff and Bryant were named to the all-tournament team. Patterson and Harrellson were also all-tournament. West Virginia falls to 4-13 all-time versus UK, with seven straight losses. The Mountaineers are now 2-3 all-time in games held in Nevada. Huggins' Kansas State team won the Las Vegas Classic in 2006. His Cincinnati team won it in 2001. He is 0-3 against Kentucky and 0-2 against Gillispie (Kansas State loss to Texas A&M in 2006-07).

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