Trailing by 17 points in the second half, the Vikings rallied to tie the score twice – the last time at 78-78 with 15 seconds to go. As they had done throughout the second half, Cleveland State again pressed WVU full-court, but this time the Mountaineers were able to beat it. Kevin Jones took a lazy lob pass from Truck Bryant and found Butler, who cut down the left side of the lane and hit the open shot. A Cleveland State desperation heave didn't come close, allowing the sixth-ranked Mountaineers to escape with their perfect record intact.
Although WVU certainly didn't look like a Top Ten squad over the final 20 minutes, it did so in the opening half. The Mountaineers efficiently dismantled CSU's 2-3 zone, scoring on several nice passing combinations and its usual diet of second chances to build a 46-33 halftime advantage. Much of the period was the Kevin Jones show, as West Virginia's silent warrior scored ten of WVU's 13 points in a burst that gave the Mountaineers a 24-12 lead. Jones ended the half with 14 points on 6-7 shooting, and added an assist, a rebound and a steal as West Virginia moved out to its double-digit lead.
The second half was a different story, however. The Vikings went all out on defense, switching to a 1-2-1-1 full court zone press that left the Mountaineers befuddled. Time and again, West Virginia tried to dribble the ball through trapping defenders or threw the ball into dangerous spots on the floor, and the Vikings were quick to take advantage.
"I told them it was coming," a clearly disgusted head coach Bob Huggins said afterward. "We told them that they have gone to the press every time they have gotten down this year. We have worked on press breaker every day this year, and we've told them to get off the sidelines and not to catch the ball in the corner, and they keep doing it. We told them this would happen."
West Virginia (8-0) struggled so mightily against Cleveland State's pressure that the Mountaineers managed just 21 shots in the second half. While WVU hit 56% of its chances, the paltry number of attempts kept the Mountaineers from coming close to its first half total. Prior to Butler's game-winner, West Virginia had just six field goals in the preceding 16:13 of the second half.
Defensively, the game was also a story in two parts. Early on, West Virginia's man-to-man defense kept Cleveland State (4-8) from running its offense smoothly, but the Vikings soon figured out that WVU had no one that could guard sharp-shooting guard Norris Cole. Cole and teammate Trevon Harmon repeatedly spun into the lane against West Virginia's lackadaisical defense, and found room for shots of their own or dishes to Aaron Pogue. Cole was stellar down the stretch, finishing with 29 points. Jeremy Montgomery added 13 points, including seven of CSU's final nine, while Harmon and Pogue chipped in with 11 each.
"If we can't guard these guards, how are we going to guard the guys we have to face?" Huggins asked, referring to the talent-laden Big East schedule his team will soon embark upon. "We half-ass everything. I'm embarrassed. I am used to having teams that play hard. I've had teams in the past that didn't shoot well or weren't as talented, but we always played hard. This team hasn't. It comes down to attitude and effort, and we are not what we're purported to be."
West Virginia was hampered defensively by the absence of Joe Mazzulla, who went to the locker room and did not play again after banging his surgically-repaired shoulder in the first half. Mazzulla, who is easily WVU's best on-the-ball defender, played just three minutes into the contest, and when he went to the locker room in obvious pain, the Mountaineers were left with no answer for Cole. Mazzulla's status following the game was unknown, but it's becoming more obvious with every grimace and game departure that he's playing on guts alone.
Two players who do meet Huggins' expectations are Jones and Butler, and without either the Mountaineers would have lost this game by a large margin. Jones finished with a career-high 23 points, while Butler filled up the stat book with 18 points, nine rebounds, five assists and two steals. Bryant added 12 and Devin Ebanks 11, but it wasn't scoring that was West Virginia's problem on the day. WVU, as it did against Texas A&M, nearly threw away a game it had well in hand, primarily because it could not handle the press.
"We are just too nonchalant with the ball," Huggins lamented afterward. "We are terrible passers. We don't pop the ball with any authority."
Those shortcomings, as well as a propensity to try to dribble through presses, almost doomed WVU to its first loss of the season. Without Mazzulla, WVU simply doesn't have enough ball handlers that are savvy enough with the ball. Ebanks, whose taped left hand is a big handicap in dribbling and securing the ball, struggled to help against the press, leaving Butler, who had five turnovers, as the primary ballhandler. The Vikings jumped on those shortcoming with full force, and nearly pulled off the biggest upset of the day.
Huggins believed that his team's lack of effort was a major factor.
"They beat us to every loose ball, and they beat us down the floor," Huggins lamented. "They played harder than we did. "We've had some guys play hard, but we haven't had all five guys play hard for ten minutes [at a time] all year long. This team has gotten by on length and athleticism all year, rather than by doing things right."
West Virginia returns home on Wednesday to face Mississippi. In that