PoG: WVU - Syracuse

It was another heartbreaker for WVU, as it fell for the third time in the first 16 days of 2010. Still, despite the 72-71 loss, the BlueGoldNews.com staff witnessed some solid performances from the Mountaineers against a tough Syracuse squad.


Dalton Pepper.

It's beyond cliche at this point to say players that don't seem to notice pressure have "ice water in their veins." Pepper takes that to another level, looking downright emotionless at times that could rattle many other players.

The freshman guard stepped up in a big way on Saturday, hitting three 3-pointers and scoring 15 points. Until Darryl Bryant scored nine points in the final 34 seconds, that looked like it would be good enough to hold up as a team-high.

While Bryant's late heroics nearly helped West Virginia come back from a 10-point deficit in the last 1:25, it was Pepper's performance that really gave the Mountaineers a legitimate shot to win the game in the second half.

His third and final 3-pointer gave WVU its biggest lead of the game at 38-32 with just over 15:00 remaining. Already, the Levittown, Pa., native had canned a pair of second half trifectas at that point, helping his team turn a 26-25 halftime deficit into that six point lead.

But it was his all-around performance (and not just the NBA range 3-pointer he hit) that earned Pepper our top honors.

The freshman admitted that making the necessary adjustments to play defense at the Big East Conference level had been difficult. But he is clearly making strides, as he did a more than admirable job against Andy Rautins for most of the time he was guarding the Orange sharpshooter.

Rautins still scored 12 points, but he had to earn them -- making several tough shots.

Even Pepper's offensive game showed signs of improvement. Normally a threat only from 3-point range, the guard scored after executing a nice up-and-under move that led to a leaning jumper.

While the freshman still looked green when he threw the ball away, leading to an easy lay-in for SU, at one point in the second half, that was his only turnover against a tough Orange 2-3 zone. He had three assists.

Pepper continues to earn more minutes with his play, because, as head coach Bob Huggins said, the guard "competes" in practices. He's doing the same thing in games and may become an even more integral part of the rotation down the stretch.


  • Joe Mazzulla.

    Okay, so the statistical line for the point guard wasn't staggering. He was held scoreless, had only two rebounds, two assists and a turnover to go with four personal fouls in 16 minutes.

    But it's clear that he is the only Mountaineer guard that can consistently deny opposing players the chance to drive into the lane seemingly at will.

    Joe Mazzulla

    That fact puts Huggins in a very tough spot in a game like Saturday's. With Mazzulla's shoulder clearly still giving him problems, teams can practically play 5-on-4 on the defensive end with the junior guard in the lineup.

    But at times, without him, it looks like his team is playing 4-on-5 on the other end.

    Breakdowns in defense generated by dribble penetration created the biggest problems for West Virginia against SU. While Bryant continues to make progress in playing against opposing point guards, he still isn't in Mazzulla's league when it comes to man-to-man defense.

    How Huggins answers that problem with his defense could go a long way to determining how the rest of the season goes for his West Virginia team.

  • Attacking the 2-3 zone.

    While Huggins disputed the notion that his team struggled to find the weak spots in SU coach Jim Boeheim's trademark 2-3 zone in the first half, it did seem a bit tentative after failing to convert on some early offensive opportunities.

    In the first 10 minutes, the Mountaineers had shots from the foul line area, which is typically a weak spot in the zone. They missed almost all of them.

    They had chances from in close. They missed nearly all of them.

    For much of the remainder of the first half, WVU settled for plenty of long jump shots -- just what the packed-in Syracuse zone hoped to entice the hosts to do -- and had to deal with the consequences, as it scored only 25 points in the opening 20 minutes.

    But after a halftime pep talk from Huggins, the squad did a better job of getting easier opportunities. West Virginia had 16 points in the paint (a number dwarfed by the Orange's staggering 36) -- 12 of which came in the second half.

    The results were noticeable, as the team went from shooting 32.3 percent in the first half to hitting 46.7 percent from the field in the final period.

    Huggins was right when he said after the game that when a team has 16 more field goal attempts than its opponent (as WVU did on Saturday) that it should win more often than not. But players must take good shots for that advantage to actually mean something.

    In the first half, at times, the Mountaineers did not do that. They were a bit better in the last 20 minutes.

  • Da'Sean Butler.

    We have to throw the senior forward a proverbial bone here. While he continues to struggle with his shooting touch (only 5-of-13 from the field, including a 2-of-6 mark from 3-point range), he's still doing all of the other things WVU needs him to do if it hopes to win.

    Butler tied with two other Mountaineers for a team-high in rebounds with six. He added a game-high five assists against only one turnover (possibly the result of having seen Jim Boeheim's 2-3 zone more than most of Huggins' players) and had two steals.

    The senior had a steal, two assists and five points in the final minute rally that fell just short. For the third time in the last three weeks, he had the ball in his hands at the buzzer, hoping to be a hero.

    For the second time out of those three chances, his game-winning attempt didn't find the basket. It's hard to blame Butler for that on Saturday, as he had only 2.5 seconds to try to get a good shot up after gathering a rebound under his own basket.

    Huggins and company need Butler and fellow star Devin Ebanks to make shots. The head coach as said as much several times.

    But while many players would let the rest of their game get sloppy because of occasionally poor offensive performances, Butler remains the Mountaineers' all-around best player -- even when the shots aren't falling.

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