But after a media timeout that followed a foul by Jared Swopshire, things began to change.
That helped nullify the advantage that U of L had for much of the game as a result of its dribble penetration.
That freed up several options on the perimeter, allowing Louisville -- a team that came into Saturday's game ranked 14th in the Big East Conference in terms of 3-point field goal percentage -- to hit seven of its nine long-range attempts in the first half.
But the 1-3-1 zone changed all that, and the Cardinals didn't respond well. No longer were guards Reginald Delk and Silva -- who combined to hit seven of their 10 attempts from beyond the arc -- open on the perimeter.
They also failed to consistently find forward Samardo Samuels, who had been dominant -- hitting eight of his 11 field goal attempts for the game.
Samuels' lay-in with 2:24 remaining, which pushed a tied game back to a 72-70 Louisville lead, was the visitors' only field goal in the final 6:57 of the game -- and accounted for two of their four points in the same span.
Huggins said he believed it was the Mountaineers' length that bothered U of L so much after the switch to the 1-3-1.
"We were running out of defenses to play," said the third-year WVU head coach. "We've really had decent success with the point-drop, but we played a 1-3-1 that wasn't a conventional 1-3-1."
"We changed it in practice the other day and put Devin on top, so it became a 2-3. I kind of screw everything up. I'm not very conventional."
But that "screw up" was just what the doctor ordered for a West Virginia team that had looked lethargic on both ends for much of the second half up to that point.
While the defense was finally consistently stringing together stops, the offense managed to find a way to respond in kind.
Kevin Jones scored eight straight points to surge the Mountaineers forward, hitting a 3-pointer just before the under-4:00 media timeout to bring his team within 70-65.
After the break, he then made a pair of free throws -- two of WVU's 26 points from the charity stripe (compared to only nine for the visitors). He ended the scoring spree with an old-fashioned three-point play, hitting a jumper while being fouled by Terrence Jennings.
The ensuing free throw tied the game at 70 with exactly 2:00 remaining. After Samuels' lay-up, Devin Ebanks found a clear path to the goal and drove in for a lay-in while absorbing contact from Delk.
The sophomore forward's free throw gave the Mountaineers a 73-72 lead -- their first advantage since holding a 34-32 edge with 4:30 left in the first half.
An Ebanks steal led to a chance to expand the edge, but Jones' 3-point attempt was no good. In frustration, the forward then fouled Jerry Smith around 85 feet from the basket, and Smith made both free throws to give Louisville a tenuous 74-73 edge.
With time running out, Wellington Smith popped free for a jump shot that was no good. But Ebanks was in the right place at the right time, outmuscling multiple Cardinals for a key offensive rebound.
West Virginia (17-3, 6-2) called timeout with 29.5 seconds left to set up a play.
From there, Joe Mazzulla drove the lane and appeared to absorb contact from a Louisville player before losing the ball out of bounds.
The official ruled that no foul had been committed, but the ball had gone out of bounds off of the defender, giving the Mountaineers another shot -- much to the chagrin of U of L head coach Rick Pitino.
"The ball went off Mazzulla's head with 19 seconds (left)," Pitino said. "My kids played their hearts out. They played their tails off. The ball was off the young man's head. They gave it to them back."
"That's twice now, the Pitt game and this game. That's twice now that that's happened, okay? You don't shoot 53 percent and play as hard as that and expect those situations, so I've had it with the officiating. I'm not going to say anymore. I've had it."
But that was hardly the last time Pitino would find reason to complain about the men in stripes.
|This game recap presented by The Book Exchange|
Given another chance, WVU inbounded to Butler, who hit a jump shot from the baseline with 16.3 seconds left, giving his team a 75-74 lead.
"I thought we could get a pretty good shot on that out-of-bounds play, because we have before," Huggins said. "It's all about Da'Sean reading it right, and I think he did a great job of reading it to get the shot."
After Delk missed a 3-point attempt on the ensuing Cards possession, a wild scrum occurred under the basket. In a crowd of bodies, the official along the baseline had to duck his head to avoid contact with players -- and, thus, was not able to see who the ball touched last before going out of bounds.
Confusion reigned, and officials went to the scorer's table, apparently to check a replay -- once again, to Pitino's dismay.
"I got a bogus explanation," he said. "They were trying to see who it went off of, which is illegal. Forget that. I'm tired of the officiating. That's why I'm not speaking. I'm tired of the officiating."
Those comments would be the Louisville coach's only words before leaving associate head coach Ralph Willard behind to answer the media's questions.
Huggins, for his part, also was unsure what to make of the review.
"I don't think they can go back to the replay and change it," he said. "Maybe they can, but I don't think so."
"I had to ask (the officials what was being reviewed) because I had to know whether we needed to prepare to play offense or defense."
In the end, the review went WVU's way. An inbounds pass to Butler was successful, and the senior was fouled and made both free throws with 5.8 seconds left.
Mike Marra's last second 3-point attempt was too strong, and the Mountaineers escaped with a 77-74 win.
"They did a good job of forcing us away from the basket at the guard spot, so we didn't get the diagonal looks that we normally get against the 1-3-1," Willard said. "We had some good looks that just didn't go down. We had some 3s that didn't go down, and if they would've, it would be a different ball game."
In the early stages, it looked like it would be Louisville that would need to hope for some late heroics if it hoped to win. WVU scored the game's first 13 points in a span of just 2:48, taking advantage of a trio of 3-pointers -- two from Butler and one from Smith.
But when Smith got in foul trouble and bench players had trouble contributing (scoring only five points for the game, just one contest after tallying only two points against DePaul), the Cards got off the mat.
U of L (13-8, 4-4) took advantage of a 16-4 run to claim its first lead on a Sosa 3-pointer that made it 32-30 in favor of the visitors.
That edge would balloon to as many as seven points in the final minute of the half -- and when the Cards responded to a 6-0 mini-run by the Mountaineers that briefly tied the game at 48 with 14:46 left by going on an 8-0 spurt of the their own, it seemed as though they might escape Morgantown with a victory.
Instead, Butler and Smith, West Virginia's only two seniors, managed to earn their first career win over Louisville in their last chance (barring a rematch in the Big East Tournament) to do so.
"It's the Big East. That's what happens," said Huggins, when asked about the back-and-forth action. "If you watched their Villanova game or their Pitt game, that's what happened. That's what happens in this league. Coaches are too good and players are too good in this league for someone to walk through things."
Butler led all scorers with a season-high 27 points on 9-of-19 shooting. Jones added 16 more, and Ebanks just missed a double-double with nine points and 11 rebounds.
For Louisville, Samuels and Delk led the way with 16 points apiece. The Mountaineer defense did manage to harass Samuels into five turnovers, however. Siva came off the bench to add 14 more -- 12 of which came on his four 3-pointers.
The drama figures to continue inside the Coliseum on Wednesday night, when West Virginia entertains arch-rival Pittsburgh. It will be the first regular season game in which forward Deniz Kilicli will be eligible to participate.