In West Virginia's two most recent games, the Mountaineers were able to make emphatic statements with blowout road wins at Ohio State and Seton Hall. On Tuesday night in Morgantown, WVU was hoping to make another statement, not so much with a hefty margin of victory, but with a win any way it could get it against fifth-rated Connecticut.
Unfortunately for WVU (11-3, 1-1), the overall size of UConn combined with one of the worst shooting nights of the season by the Mountaineers ultimately did in the hosts as Connecticut (13-1, 2-1) escaped the Coliseum with a 61-55 win.
Jeff Adrien led four Huskies in double figures with 17 points. Hasheem Thabeet added 13 points and 13 rebounds, Jerome Dyson scored 11 and Kemba Walker chipped in 10 to pace the preseason Big East favorite.
Although UConn's offensive balance was impressive, the Huskies won this game in large part due to their efforts on the glass. Undersized WVU, which entered the game ranked second in the Big East in rebounding margin, got beat into submission on the boards as Connecticut bullied its way to a dominating 52-33 edge in rebounding. Included in that total were 20 offensive rebounds, seven above the Huskies' season average. Of the 20 offensive boards, 15 came in the first half.
"Our biggest emphasis tonight was to bang the boards and at 52-33 I think we did a pretty good job," said longtime UConn head coach Jim Calhoun.
"They're a foot taller than we are," said WVU head coach Bob Huggins.
Doing much of the damage on the glass for Connecticut was junior forward Stanley Robinson. The Birmingham, Ala. native, who missed the first semester while taking a personal leave of absence, finished with a career-high 15 rebounds while playing virtually the entire game.
"I thought that it was the first extended time we were able to give Stanley Robinson some minutes, and he was absolutely magnificent on the boards," Calhoun said of his forward.
Compounding West Virginia's problems was a sluggish offensive night, though it warrants mentioning that the Huskies might be the best defensive team in this league, if not one of the better defensive teams in the country.
West Virginia shot just 30 percent the game, including a paltry nine-of-26 effort from the floor in the second half. Leading scorer Alex Ruoff endured a frustrating four-of-16 night from the field, which included just two makes in 11 three-point attempts. With West Virginia trailing by two late in the game, Ruoff had a clean look at a transition three which would have given WVU the lead, but the shot rimmed out. Cam Thoroughman rebounded the miss and drew a foul, but could not convert the front end of a one-and-one as the Mountaineers saw their best chance to pull the upset fall by the wayside.
Junior forward Da'Sean Butler, averaging nearly 16 points per game entering Tuesday, was plagued with foul trouble for much of the night. When he did play, Butler managed to make just five of his 13 shot attempts.
"When Da'Sean and Alex go 9-for-29, we're not going to win, particularly against a team like (Connecticut)," Huggins said.
The Huskies were an efficient 12-21 from the floor in the second half. Dyson, UConn's leading scorer, came up big down the stretch, scoring nine of his 11 points in the final 20 minutes. After Thoroughman's missed one-and-one, Dyson scored the final four points of regulation to salt away the win for UConn.
Dyson also turned in the play of the game when he rebounded his own missed foul shot and drew the fourth foul on Butler. He then made both foul shots, giving Connecticut the lead for good at the 8:30 mark.
"The guy misses the free throw and gets his own shot back," lamented Huggins. "That's inexcusable. We're going to miss shots. They were bigger and stronger and they're going to get some rebounds over the top of us, but not the guy at the foul line. That was the play of the game because that put Da'Sean on the bench. That's inexcusable, particularly with the way we work at it and the way we emphasize it then it happens."
Adrien, who has been a thorn in West Virginia's side in the past, scored 13 of his 17 points in the second half. The Mountaineers did their best to keep the bigger Huskies from catching the ball close, but ultimately, UConn was just too much.
"I think they did a wonderful job at really trying to seal off our big people to limit the shots that either Hasheem or Jeff would have," Calhoun said. "But our kids wouldn't be denied down the stretch."
"We're not good enough," Huggins concluded. "We're not big enough. We're not strong enough. We have to do everything right and I told them that in (the locker room). We have to do things right. We have to do things right. We can't get away with what other people get away with. We don't have shot blockers. We have one senior (Ruoff).
"I told them that I've coached almost 900 games and there's not much going to happen that I haven't seen," he continued. "You try to warn them and you try to tell them the best you can to prepare them, but (UConn) can make more mistakes than we can. They can do that because they have guys who can erase mistakes. They can miss shots. They're bigger and stronger. They've got a whole bunch of veteran guys, and not just veteran, real good veteran guys."
The Mountaineers will be back on the road Saturday with a noon tipoff at Marquette