The particulars of each rally have been different, but the story line goes something like this. West Virginia plays poor defense and misses a lot of shots early, falling behind by double digits. The Mountaineers score on the last possession of the second half, then look like a totally different team in the final 20 minutes to secure the win. All those elements were in place in WVU's road win, and when Da'Sean Butler heated up midway through the period on his way to a season-high 33 points, there was little doubt that West Virginia (19-3, 8-2) was going to avoid the upset that threatened for the first 30 minutes of the contest. West Virginia's senior leader hit all seven of his three-point attempts as the Mountaineers buried the Red Storm under an avalanche of 57 second half points.
"We ran some things for Da' that we usually run for the other guards," head coach Bob Huggins said after the game. "We put him in the point to run some of those things where we 'screen the screener'. We wanted him to be the first screener and then get the ball back."
When he did, he didn't disappoint. Butler scored 12 points in just 3:40 midway through the second half, turning a five point Mountaineer deficit into a four-point lead. Nine of the points came on three-point shots, while the other three came on an old-school three-point play. He tallied 24 points in the second half after moving into fourth place on the all-time WVU scoring list by hitting three throws in the final seconds of the opening period.
While Butler took the leading role, it wasn't all him. West Virginia's defensive effort in the second half was a 180 from its first half performance, where it allowed a number of St. John's open shots. Playing man-to-man almost exclusively in the first half, WVU couldn't keep the Red Storm (12-10, 2-8) from penetrating, and that resulted in either close in chances for Anthony Mason and Justin Burrell, or kick-outs to open jump shooters. In the second half the Mountaineers switched to an old standby, the 1-3-1, and just like on offense, things immediately reversed. The Johnnies were denied the open looks they got during the first half, and as WVU began to pour points in on the other end of the floor, the home team couldn't answer.
The point differentials were staggering. St. John's had a 20-5 run to close out the first half, but that paled to the runs the Mountaineers fashioned in the second half. West Virginia had a 22-4 blitz to take the lead, and stretched that to a 42-13 advantage when it took a 68-54 lead on a Wellington Smith jumper. From there, it was just a matter of playing out the string.
"The 1-3-1 got them out of rhythm," Huggins noted. "And then I thought when we went back to the man, and got up into them, we played pretty well."
One of the keys to the 1-3-1, Joe Mazzulla, didn't play in the first half, which likely contributed to the decision not to use that zone. Mazzulla sported an ice bag on his injured shoulder following Wednesday's win over Pitt, but it was a sprained ankle that kept him on the bench for the first 20 minutes. Faced with that 11-point deficit, Huggins had little choice but to use him.
That move paid off, as Mazzulla responded with tough defense at the bottom of the zone and solid distribution on the offensive end. But it was his stifling defense that was a key to the contest. Huggins would like to be able to play that set without Mazzulla at times, but learning it is still a work in progress.
"We're trying to get Truck [Bryant] caught up so that he knows what he's doing, and Joe's really been trying to help him understand it."
On its way to 57 second half points, WVU got contributions from just about everyone other than Mazzulla. In addition to Butler's 33, Kevin Jones (13 points), Devin Ebanks (12) and Wellington Smith (10) hit double figures. Ebanks had a double-double with ten rebounds, helping the Mountaineers to a 10-board advantage. Justin Burrell and Paris Horne each had 12 points for the Red Storm.