WVU ready for Big East Tournament
MORGANTOWN -- West Virginia Coach Bob Huggins was on the phone with Kentucky Coach John Calipari last week and they had a conversation about coaching at a time when it's nice to have friends in the business.
Calipari has no reason to worry with the top-ranked team in the country. He told Huggins, who had a fringe NCAA Tournament team, his worries were almost over.
"Huggs," Calipari said, "you're not that far from being good."
The two agreed on one thing: one obstacle remained in WVU's way.
"We just don't finish anything," Huggins said.
The Mountaineers have played one of the more challenging schedules in the country with 19 games against teams in the top 100 of Sunday's RPI, but they also established their position on the bubble with seven losses by seven or fewer points and four by three or fewer.
WVU - 49th in RPI - finished Saturday. Finished a game. Finished the regular season. Quite likely finished any debate about whether they belong in the NCAA Tournament.
The Mountaineers won by three points at South Florida, where the Bulls had lost just once this season. It was a 50-44 game and WVU did everything right at the end to get the win even without scoring a basket in the final 7 minutes, 2 seconds.
"We made plays when we had to make plays," Huggins said.
With the win and Seton Hall's loss to DePaul, WVU (19-12, 9-9 Big East) earned the No. 8 seed in this week's Big East Tournament.
The Mountaineers will play at noon Wednesday against the winner of Tuesday's noon game between ninth-seeded Connecticut (18-12, 8-10) and the 16th-seeded Blue Demons (12-18, 3-15).
Huggins believes the Mountaineers are going to Madison Square Garden and their final Big East Tournament playing for seeding in the NCAA Tournament.
"I don't think there's any doubt," he said. "I told them as long as we're having fun, let's just go win in New York."
The Mountaineers won their final two regular-season games to make sure they didn't finish below .500 in the conference standings. No Big East team had been below .500 and made the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team since 1994. WVU's previous winning streak was a three-game run Jan 14-21 against Rutgers, Marshall and Cincinnati. In between, the team was 2-7.
Saturday's win was a struggle, though, and the Mountaineers won with 15 baskets and 28.8 percent shooting, the lowest marks in a win since 1951 and 1957, respectively. It only seemed as long since they made the necessary plays late in the game.
A team that was shooting 66 percent at the free-throw line this season and had eight games with 10 or more misses went 18-for-21 and scored its final 10 points at the line.
WVU also made two key defensive plays and benefited from a costly USF gaffe.
"I felt like everybody was in tune with each other and I felt like everybody was working toward a common goal," said forward Kevin Jones, who had his 20th double-double with 18 points and 11 rebounds. "We knew what we had to do."
It began with the score tied at 44 with 2:01 to go and after Jones turned the ball over trying to save a loose ball under his basket. USF point guard Anthony Collins worked his way inside with the help of a teammate's screen and passed to Gus Gilchrist for what should have been an easy dunk.
Jones blocked the shot and then made two free throws after he was fouled when he rebounded Jabarie Hinds' missed 3. He made both and WVU led for good, but not without incident.
The Bulls (19-12, 12-6) had the ball with 49.3 seconds to go and Jawanza Poland drove on Hinds and into the paint. Freshman Gary Browne stepped in and took the charge with 39.6 seconds remaining.
"They don't shoot the ball very well," said Browne, who threw away a pass and a chance to win the Louisville game last month. "When you know they're not going to take a jump shot, you step in there and take the charge when they drive it."
Still down just 46-44, the Bulls let WVU dribble and pass the ball until fouling Truck Bryant with 13.5 seconds left. USF trapped Bryant with 20 seconds to go and Bryant passed to Jones, who was then trapped and passed to Deniz Kilicli, a 55.6-percent free-throw shooter.
He ended up passing to Hinds, who quickly got the ball to Bryant. He made both free throws and finished 12-for-12 and managed 16 points, despite shooting 2-for-11 from the floor and 0-for-5 from 3-point range.
"That was my fault," Bulls Coach Stan Heath said. "We did not want to foul Bryant and we didn't want to foul Kevin Jones. We wanted to foul anybody else that touched the ball. We didn't have anyone around when Kilicli touched it and he quickly got the ball back out. We let the clock go down way too far."
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JONES WAS named first-team all-Big East Sunday after leading the league in scoring (20 points per game) and rebounding (11.2 per game). He's the third player to ever do that and the first in 12 years. Bryant (17.1 points per game) made the third team.
Jones wasn't a unanimous first-team pick, though, which means at least one coach didn't put the senior on his first-team ballot.
"Can't imagine which Big East coach didn't think Kevin Jones was worthy of a vote for 1st team All Big East," Huggins wrote on Twitter. "Only a handful of players in the storied Big East have done what KJ has."
Marquette's Jae Crowder was the only unanimous pick and he was joined on the first-team by teammate Darius Johnson-Odom. They're the top three candidates for Big East Player of the Year, which will be announced Tuesday. No WVU player has won the award.
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.