Confident For A Reason

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- West Virginia's players and coaches insisted they wouldn't be rattled without the services of starting point guard Truck Bryant. They insisted they were perfectly capable of dictating the pace of Thursday's regional semifinal against Washington. They were right.

The Mountaineers recovered from a shaky start, used a defense that operated like a vise grip and an offense that dominated its own glass to earn the program's second trip to the Elite Eight in six seasons with a 69-56 win over the No. 11-seeded Huskies at the Carrier Dome.

The Big East champions, who became the last team from the the conference left standing when Syracuse fell to Butler while the second half was underway, took control with an 11-1 run that began around five minutes into the period.

It started just after Joe Mazzulla, the redshirt junior tasked with carrying the load in the absence of Bryant (who is out for the rest of the NCAA Tournament with a broken fifth metatarsal), picked up his third foul and was sent to the bench with 16:34 left.

Venoy Overton hit a pair of free throws and Quincy Pondexter scored on a turnaround jumper in the moments after that foul, giving the Huskies a 37-36 lead, and a touch of doubt began to creep into the minds of the gold-clad fans in attendance.

But WVU's game-changing run began in short order with a Kevin Jones 3-pointer. The No. 2 seed would never again trail.

By the time Wellington Smith scored on a put-back of a missed trifecta from Casey Mitchell (who, to the surprise of most everyone, started in Bryant's place), the Mountaineers had built a 47-38 lead just before the under-12:00 media timeout.

They had done it all with Mazzulla sitting on the bench, and Washington would never again draw within fewer than six points.

West Virginia (30-6) took control and kept it largely as a result of its dominance on the offensive glass.

Twenty-three of the 49 rebounds corralled by head coach Bob Huggins' team came on that end of the floor, and led to an equally staggering 17-0 advantage in second-chance points.

"I've said before, our best chance of making a shot is missing one first," said forward Da'Sean Butler, who struggled from the field but still had 14 points. "We just do a great job of getting guys there, and they work hard."

"It's something Coach practices us on religiously, so we're always there."

That more than offset the advantage Washington had in transition, the area of the game that (much like WVU's second-round win over Missouri) had been most-heavily discussed in the lead-up to the contest.

The Huskies (26-10) did dominate that category, forcing an uncharacteristically-high 23 turnovers out of the Mountaineers and using steals and long rebounds off of missed 3-pointers to gain a 20-6 edge in fast-break points.

That was a big part of why UW held a 29-27 lead at halftime. Rather than telling his team to worry more about his opponent's transition offense, Huggins took the opposite approach.

"I think we showed them so much tape of how fast Washington is in transition and the need to get back, that I think we were thinking about getting back rather than doing what we do," said the third-year West Virginia coach, who will be a part of his first regional final game since 1995 on Saturday.

"That's what I told them at halftime. I said, ‘You know, maybe we're going to lose. I don't know. But if we do lose, let's lose our way. Let's lose doing what we do. Forget all this stuff, let's just go do what we do. I thought we did a much, much better job of playing the way we're going at playing in the second half."

Indeed, while the Mountaineers still committed 10 turnovers in the final 20 minutes, they achieved greater rhythm and consistency on offense than they had in the first half.

In a surprise move, Huggins started Mitchell in place of Bryant. It was the former junior college Player of the Year's sixth start of the season and his first since the team's win over Portland on Nov. 29.

But Mitchell struggled early, committing multiple turnovers, and Huggins pulled the junior in favor of Dalton Pepper. But the true freshman also had issues shortly after entering, and the third-year head coach finally went with Mazzulla.

The offense, which had sputtered with Butler attempting to run the point, continued to struggle. Time and time again, soft West Virginia passes were intercepted. Players were forced to settle for perimeter jumpers which simply were not falling early, as the squad hit only one of eight attempts from long range in the first half .

It looked like the Mountaineers might be in dire straits when Mazzulla picked up his second personal foul at the 6:44 mark and was forced to the bench. Mitchell, his replacement, then quickly gave up an easy drive and lay-in to Abdul Gaddy that made it 17-12 in favor of Washington.

But WVU hung tough for a few minutes and then watched the Huskies' star forward Pondexter pick up his third foul of the half with 4:27 left until the break.

From there, Deniz Kilicli (who notably said he had no reason to be nervous the day before the game, as he would not be playing much anyway) took over, scoring six straight points for his team. His second field goal, a left-handed hook shot, made it 25-24 in favor of West Virginia -- the team's first lead since it was 2-0.

But another soft pass (this time from Devin Ebanks) was intercepted by the Huskies' Venoy Overton, whose fast-break lay-in made it 29-27 at the half.

It wouldn't matter, as a combination of offensive rebounds, better shooting and a change-up 1-3-1 defense were far too much for UW to handle in the second half.

Indeed, that zone defense made a late comeback an impossible task, as Washington committed five turnovers and attempted only two shots in a span of 3:22 after Huggins made a switch to the 1-3-1 late in the game.

"I think it was because we were down, we were trying to rush too much," said the Huskies' Justin Holiday, trying to explain his team's deficiencies against a zone it had faced three times previously in Pac-10 games against Oregon State.

"We didn't understand we didn't need to rush. We had time to swing the ball around. The reason why we were doing so well against the zone in the past was because we moved the ball around and took our time. And because we were down, I guess just us being antsy and wanting to get the lead back, we didn't really take our time and move the ball."

But it was the length of Ebanks at the top of that zone that seemed to really give UW fits.

"It was tough to get around them and shoot over their size," said Pondexter, a senior whose career came to an end Thursday and a former teammate of Butler on the United States' team at the World University Games last summer.

"They have a lot of size. It's hard to get easy baskets, even by offensive rebounding or anything like that. Their size really is a benefit for them"

Holiday led Washington, which fell in the Sweet Sixteen for the third time under head coach Lorenzo Romar, with 14 points and eight rebounds. Isaiah Thomas added 13 points, but committed four turnovers before fouling out late.

Pondexter, the Huskies' leading scorer and rebounder, was held to seven points and two boards in only 27 minutes of play after picking up a trio of first half fouls.

For West Virginia, Jones had team-highs with 18 points and eight rebounds. Butler added 14, and Ebanks had 12 points and seven boards while committing a whopping eight turnovers.

The Mountaineers, who have won 30 games for the first time in program history, advanced to only their second regional final since the 1959 team lost 71-70 to California in the national championship game.

A win Saturday, against the victor of the Kentucky-Cornell game that followed WVU's triumph at the Carrier Dome, would give the program its first Final Four berth since that season, when Jerry West was only a junior in college.

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