For 25 minutes here on Saturday afternoon, West Virginia played pretty well. Unfortunately for the Mountaineers, the other 15 minutes were among their worst of the season. Louisville turned its suffocating full-court pressure defense into easy buckets, building a first-half lead as big as 22 points before hanging on late to hold off WVU by a final of 69-63.
A disastrous final 12 minutes of the first half and lethargic start to the second half left WVU in a hole too deep to dig itself out of, especially against the deep and talented Cardinals. Offensively, West Virginia did next to nothing in the opening frame after taking a 12-10 lead on a basket by Alex Ruoff. After Ruoff's layup, the Mountaineers went nearly 10 minutes without a field goal.
Of course shot attempts are awfully hard to come by when West Virginia is unable to get into its five-out motion offense, which was the case for much of the first half against U of L's 2-2-1 full-court press.
Freshman point guard Truck Bryant struggled mightily against the Cardinals' pressure, accounting for four of WVU's 14 first-half turnovers. Louisville scored 18 easy points off of the Mountaineer miscues en route to building a 45-25 halftime lead.
When WVU did get the ball past the timeline, the Cardinals did a great job of racing back to erase several would-be shot attempts. U of L swatted seven Mountaineer shots in the first half as West Virginia struggled to make just seven of its 26 field goal attempts.
Offensively, the Cardinals got a lift from a pair of unlikely assassins. Though it normally relies on the likes of Terrence Williams and Earl Clark, Louisville got a big boost from junior guard Jerry Smith, who hit four 3s and missed just one shot in the first half on his way to scoring 18 points. Meanwhile, freshman forward/center Terrence Jennings recorded a career-high in the first 12:07 of the first half. Jennings hit his first four shots, all of which were of the high-percentage variety, to give U of L a surprising inside-outside combination. The Cards bullied their way to 22 points in the paint.
The efficient offense combined with the menacing full-court defense left Huggins and the Mountaineers searching for answers. It also left Louisville head coach Rick Pitino quite impressed with his squad.
"That was as good of a half as we can play," said Pitino. "That was the first time since I have been a coach that we had 33 deflections in a half. We try to get 35 a game.
"We were doing a really nice job of going back door and executing. We shot a good percentage, but we kept turning the ball over too much (14 turnovers in the first half)."
The beginning of the second half wasn't much better for WVU as the Mountaineers handled the pressure, but still couldn't buy a basket. West Virginia missed eight shots in the first 5:51 of the second half. Defensively, though, the Mountaineers dug in their heels and decided not to give up anything east to the hosts. Instead of throwing the ball to the Cardinals for easy scores, the Mountaineers valued their possessions and defended the way they have for much of the season. They also did a much better job on the boards.
Once they settled down and got used to breaking the Louisville pressure, the Mountaineers were able to make a game of it. Riding on the shoulders of leading scorer Da'Sean Butler, WVU slowly but surely chipped away at Louisville's seemingly-insurmountable lead.
"Our execution was obviously a whole lot better in the second half than it was in the first," said WVU head coach Bob Huggins. "You can't continue to throw the ball to them and expect to win.
"We didn't really make any adjustments," he continued. "We just tried to do what we were supposed to do going in. And we didn't do what we were supposed to do going into halftime."
Butler scored 19 of his game-high 23 points in the second half as the Mountaineers trimmed the deficit to as little as four points. That was as close as they would get, however, as the Cardinals were able to make just enough plays down the stretch to come away with their ninth consecutive win and remain undefeated in Big East play.
"It is much better the way it ended from a teaching standpoint," Pitino said. "Our players understand what a lead is all about. When you go from 33 deflections, which is a record, to four, which is a record low – you learn."
Alex Ruoff added 16 points before fouling out. With Bryant on the bench, freshman forward Devin Ebanks assisted Ruoff and Butler in handling the ball against U of L's pressure. Ebanks finished with a career-high 14 points to go along with six rebounds and three steals.
"Devin is just getting better and better," Huggins said.
In the end, though, the hole was too deep for West Virginia to dig itself out of.
The Mountaineers continue their two-game road trip on Wednesday at Syracuse. Tipoff at the Carrier Dome is scheduled for 7:00.