WVU's Gary Browne (left) and Connecticut's Shabazz Napier hit the floor in a battle for a loose ball.
NEW YORK - Bob Huggins likes to recite statistics when arguing his case for an NCAA tournament berth for his West Virginia basketball team in the court of public opinion.Well, he's got plenty of those to make a case with the Mountaineers' strength of schedule and record against the top 100 teams in the country. Then again, he and his team found out how little it means to win some of those statistical battles in Wednesday's Big East tournament game at Madison Square Garden.In that case, it meant nothing.After all, West Virginia dominated the boards, had fewer turnovers and made free throws, all the things teams need to do to win close games. And it still wasn't enough.
In a game that played out almost identically to the teams' game two months ago in Hartford, Conn., West Virginia blew an 11-point lead in just over the final 10 minutes of regulation. This time Connecticut needed overtime to win 71-67.The impact? Well, it's hard to tell. Huggins maintains the Mountaineers (19-13) have done enough to earn a spot in the NCAA tournament. He will now have to wait until Sunday when the field is announced to find out for certain.Connecticut (20-12) certainly locked up a spot if it had not already.West Virginia's issue at the end on Wednesday was much the same as it has been all season. The Mountaineers couldn't live with success under the strain of an opponent fighting back. Connecticut held WVU to just six points in the final 4:57 of regulation and the five-minute overtime, stole the ball twice in a 14-second span to tie the game and made all the defensive plays down the stretch.It was almost identical to a 64-57 UConn win on Jan. 9, when the Huskies overcame a 10-point deficit in the final 10:24."In the end we had some bad plays. We dropped the ball,'' said center Deniz Kilicli, who fouled out with 4:20 to play in regulation and WVU leading 61-54. "And when they needed to score, they knew how and we didn't.''It was pretty simple how it all fell apart, really. After building that lead, West Virginia pretty much succumbed to Connecticut's athleticism. Unable to crack WVU's defense with sets and with the Mountaineers smothering Jeremy Lamb, the Huskies backed off and just gave the ball to Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright.Trailing by that 47-36 score, Napier was the biggest factor. He scored 17 of his 26 points in the next eight minutes, the last two baskets to tie the score at 63 after stealing the ball in the backcourt.It was still tied at 65 and West Virginia had the ball twice with a chance to win. But a team that shot just 34.7 percent from the floor couldn't convert. First, Dominique Rutledge - who had his best game ever with 11 rebounds, six points and three assists - couldn't figure out how to get to the basket after he faked two Connecticut defenders past him with 1:08 to play.Then, after Gary Browne stole the ball from Napier, Jabarie Hinds missed a drive to the basket with 25 seconds to go. But Napier missed his game-winning try at the buzzer to send it to overtime.In the extra session it was more of the same for West Virginia, which missed all 11 tries at the basket. Lamb's 3-pointer with 1:04 to play was the game-winner and the Mountaineers missed six shots after that.
When all was said and done, Kevin Jones had 25 points and 10 rebounds for his 21st double-double of the season, but left the Garden with an empty feeling after both his and WVU's last game ever in the tournament."We played our hardest. We didn't make the correct decisions at the end. We didn't hold on to the ball. They stole it, two turnovers for layups that they really didn't earn,'' Jones said. "It's just tough because me and Truck definitely wanted to go out winners of the Big East tournament our senior year and it's tough. But it's the past now. We've got to keep on moving forward and hopefully make it into the [NCAA] tournament and try to make a run in the tournament."Bryant finished with 20 points while Lamb scored 22 for Connecticut, which advances to face No. 1 seed Syracuse at noon today. It was the seventh straight Big East tournament win for UConn and the 13th consecutive postseason win for the defending national champions.Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org
or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.CONNECTICUT 71, WEST VIRGINIA 67 OTConnecticut (20-12)
Min FG FT R A PSmith 19 0-0 0-2 0 1 0
Oriakhi 36 3-4 0-0 5 0 6Drummond 32 3-3 1-2 4 1 7Lamb 43 9-16 1-1 8 1 22Napier 40 7-18 8-9 4 6 26Giffey 16 0-1 0-0 1 1 0Olander 4 0-0 0-0 1 0 0Boatright 35 3-9 4-8 1 3 10Team 7Totals 225 25-51 14-22 31 13 71West Virginia (19-13) Min FG FT R A PJones 44 10-21 4-4 10 0 25Miles 9 0-4 0-0 2 0 0Kilicli 19 3-8 0-0 4 0 6Hinds 33 3-8 0-0 2 1 6Bryant 44 4-14 10-13 3 1 20Rutledge 27 3-8 0-0 11 3 6Brown 19 0-4 0-0 4 0 0Browne 30 2-4 0-0 4 3 4Williamson 0 0-1 0-0 0 0 0Team 7Totals 225 25-72 14-17 47 8 67Halftime: West Virginia 30-26. End of regulation: Tied 65-65. 3-point goals: Connecticut 7-18 (Napier 4-10, Lamb 3-8), West Virginia 3-19 (Bryant 2-8, Jones 1-8, Brown 0-1, Browne 0-1). Fouled out: Napier, Kilicli. Technical fouls: None. Attendance: 20,057.