Avoiding The Bug

The champions of the Big East Conference avoided the fate that befell many of their league rivals. WVU withstood an early shock when Morgan State jumped out to a 10-0 lead before taking control and heading on to the second round of the NCAA Tournament with a 77-50 win Friday afternoon at HSBC Arena.

West Virginia (28-6) went on an 18-5 run to open the second half, taking a commanding 56-32 lead, and cruised down the stretch to advance to a second round game here Sunday.

It will face either No. 7 seed Clemson or No. 10 seed Missouri, as those teams tipped off in the second game of the first session at HSBC Arena. Sunday's game time is yet to be determined.

After a Thursday filled with upsets and down-to-the-wire finishes, it looked as though another underdog might make some noise in this, the first game of the second day of the NCAA Tournament.

The Bears hit their first four shots from the field, while West Virginia missed its first 10 attempts. Nervous murmurs were heard throughout the WVU fan sections at the home of the NHL's Buffalo Sabres when Kevin Thompson's easy lay-in made it 10-0 in favor of Morgan State early.

"We were playing pitch-and-catch on the perimeter," said third-year head coach Bob Huggins. "We've started some games that way. I honestly thought we were ready to play. We just didn't do a very good job of attacking their 2-3 [zone defense] early."

For a moment, it looked like another higher-seeded Big East team might be in for a fight. Georgetown, Marquette and Notre Dame all bowed out Thursday in upsets and Villanova needed overtime to beat No. 15-seed Robert Morris in the South regional.

Many reporters wondered afterwards whether players had thought back to Thursday's surprises when the Mountaineers found themselves in a hole early. But they had their own prior experience to draw upon.

"I kind of thought about the Dayton game [a 68-60 first round NCAA Tournament loss] from last year, too," said WVU forward Devin Ebanks.

"I thought the same way Devin did," echoed his teammate and fellow forward Kevin Jones. "I definitely didn't want to end it off like that."

After Thompson hit one of two free throws to make it 17-9, the Mountaineers got back into things. They went on a 21-4 run to take command, scoring nine in a row before ending the spurt on an emphatic two-hand slam dunk by Ebanks on a fast break led by the sophomore.

Jones got the rally started, hitting a 3-pointer from the wing to make it 17-12. The sophomore added a jumper from the foul line moments later (good for his ninth straight point for his team) and ultimately led all scorers at the break with 13 points on six-of-seven shooting.

Just as quickly as Morgan State built its lead, West Virginia tore it down. The No. 2-seed held a 38-27 lead going into the locker room after registering assists on 13 of its 14 made field goals. After missing its first 10 shots, the squad hit 14 of its last 22 field goal attempts in the period.

"I'm just glad we got our minds right at the end of the first half and going into the second half, just doing what we needed to do to win," said Jones.

That momentum carried over into the second half, as the Mountaineers never let the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference champions think a comeback was possible.

The Bears (27-10) scored only six points in the first 10 minutes of the final period. They shot 21.9 percent from the field in the second half and only 29.5 percent overall. That included a miserable three-of-19 performance (15.8 percent) from 3-point range.

Meanwhile, WVU's offensive explosion continued, as its lead swelled to as many as 34 points at 70-36 on a pair of Dalton Pepper free throws with 6:07 left.

In all, every player that entered the game for the East regional's No. 2 seed scored with the exception of its two Cams -- Thoroughman and Payne.

The Mountaineers were led by Jones, who finished with a game-high 17 points despite playing only 24 minutes. Ebanks had a double-double with 16 points and 13 boards.

Da'Sean Butler, the star of last week's Big East Tournament championship run for WVU, was held to nine points, but he found other ways to contribute. The senior had six rebounds, three assists, five steals and no turnovers.

"We had a good team last year," said Butler, "but everybody was so young. I kind of felt that I had to do a lot more. This year, we're a team. Everybody has matured."

"It's a lot easier for me to go out there and play, make that one more pass to Devin or Kevin or Wells [Wellington Smith] or Truck [Bryant] or Joe [Mazzulla], too. Everybody can score. So it makes it easier on myself, not having to worry about scoring."

No West Virginia played more than Ebanks, who had only 29 minutes.

While the NCAA Tournament gives teams a day off between games (and WVU just won three games in three nights in the Big East Tournament last week), the Mountaineers' head coach was happy to give his starters the rare chance to stay fresh.

"That's the first time in a long time we've been able to rest anybody," said Huggins.

For Morgan State, Reggie Holmes was the only player in double figures. He had 12 points, but hit only four of his 17 shots as Ebanks contested almost every look the MEAC Player of the Year had.

Kevin Thompson and Troy Smith had nine points each, and Thompson had eight rebounds as well.


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