Facing the Cardinals' 2-3 zone, conventional wisdom would have it that the Mountaineers would be forced to bomb away from outside. Louisville defends at the rim fiercely, and rejected more Mountaineer shots in the teams' first meeting than Patriot missiles. However, Louisville extends its zone aggressive to guard at the three-point line, and was especially conscious of not giving West Virginia's two best three-point shooters, Da'Sean Butler and Alex Ruoff, open looks. That wasn't anything unexpected for WVU, however.
During preparations for the Cardinals, the Mountaineers concentrated on getting the ball to the high post, between the guards in the 2-3 zone, and then looking for cutters and low post ups near the basket. They executed that high-low option to perfection at times, and it carried over into the game.
"We worked a lot on it in practice, and we got a lot of open lay-ups out of it," freshman Kevin Jones, who was the "low" part of the sequence many times against the Cardinals. He finished with 19 points on 9-11 shooting, and made a living with a variety of lay-ups, scoops and reverses to go along with his signature mid-range jumpers. "I was able to find some spots and gaps."
The other part of the high came in the way WVU executed against the best defense in the country. While Louisville took the three-pointer out of WVU's arsenal (Butler and Ruoff were a combined 0-6 from distance, contributing to West Virginia's 2-12 overall mark), the Mountaineers had to be pleased with the way in which it was able to dissect the Cardinal defense for close in shots.
"The zone really spreads out, and the get to the wings well," Butler noted. "We knew that going in, so we weren't concentrating on getting three pointers. When we got guys into the middle of their defense, we scored. Every time. But we stopped doing it at some points, and that's when we had some trouble."
That counterpoint, of course, was the corresponding low. WVU had a couple of stretches where it failed to get the ball in the middle, or even get potential targets into the key, and thus failed to get the good shots that marked its offense when it was able to penetrate the lane. There were just enough of those occasions to keep the Mountaineers from getting over the hump – thus leading to the ultimate low of a loss.
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Of course, there were other factors involved in West Virginia's valiant battle against the bigger, taller, longer and stronger Cardinals. Chief among those was Louisville's press, which didn't produce the flurry of turnovers it did against the Mountaineers in their first meeting, but still chalked up a couple of big accomplishments.
First, the press bled time off the shot clock, which gave WVU less time to work in the halfcourt. The Mountaineers often didn't get into sets until 20 seconds remained on the shot clock, which limited the amount of time it had to work the ball inside. Getting the high low to work isn't just a matter of throwing the ball inside – it often requires working the ball on the perimeter and reversing it a time or two in order to get the defense in motion and create gaps to attack. With less time to do so, the Cardinals were at times able to keep the ball from going inside.
Second, while West Virginia had just 12 turnovers, the Cardinals were able to get two quick turnovers inside the five-minute mark that contributed to a key 6-0 run down the stretch. That's the nature of the Cardinal press – it might not be effective for the entire game, but it's always present, and can bite in key situations. That was certainly the case in the late going of this contest.