MORGANTOWN - That West Virginia made clutch plays when they were needed most Wednesday night against No. 16 Connecticut goes without saying.
Whether it was Joe Mazzulla's uncharacteristically hot shooting hand in the first half, Cam Thoroughman's nifty passes, John Flowers' key steals and blocks in crunch time, Deniz Kilicli's play in the post, Kevin Jones' blind garbage basket that created some breathing room or Truck Bryant finally solving WVU's free-throw shooting woes when it mattered most, the Mountaineers stepped up at all the right times.
Still, the 65-56 win that bolstered West Virginia's hopes for a Big East tournament bye was, more than anything, a credit to the Mountaineers' ability to stop players from making key plays as opposed to actually making them.
West Virginia frustrated UConn scorers Kemba Walker and Shabazz Napier over the final eight minutes with a confusing zone defense, holding the pair to just five points down the stretch and earning a much-needed victory.
Walker and Napier had combined for 35 points in the first 32 minutes and Connecticut had a 51-50 lead. After that Napier scored on a 15-foot jumper with 2:49 to play and Walker a 3-pointer just ahead of the buzzer, combining to shoot two-for-10 down the stretch while the Mountaineers were making those clutch plays and clutch shots to pull away.
"I think it frustrated them,'' Jones said of the point-drop zone that West Virginia used almost exclusively in the second half. "And that was our point, to keep them confused and make them take bad shots.''
Whatever the intent, it worked.
"It made the run some clock and made them take harder shots,'' West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said. "In the first half they were just coming down and taking the shots they wanted.''
How big was the win for West Virginia? Well, that remains to be seen. The Mountaineers (19-10, 10-7 Big East) certainly put an iron-clad lock on an NCAA tournament berth with the victory, even if they don't win another game. Perhaps more significantly, though, it puts them in excellent position to earn that first-round bye in the league tournament that begins next week.
Combined with Cincinnati's win over Marquette Wednesday night, West Virginia is now in a three-way tie for sixth place in the conference with the Bearcats and Georgetown, two teams against whom the Mountaineers own the initial tie-breakers because of head-to-head wins. But with Marquette, UConn and Villanova all just one game back at 9-8, Saturday's season finales will ultimately dictate the final order of finish.
It is certain now, though, that the Mountaineers will finish no worse than sixth if they win a noon matchup on Saturday with No. 11 Louisville. A loss in that one, though, would almost certainly put WVU in a multiple-team tie for seventh place and reduce the question of a top-eight finish and a bye to one of tie-breakers. As many as five teams could wind up in that tie and how WVU would fare in the tie-breakers depends entirely upon the teams involved.
WVU owns wins over Cincinnati, Georgetown and UConn, but lost to Marquette and Villanova. In multiple-team tie-breakers, however, head-to-head results are not always the determining factor.
Connecticut (21-8, 9-8), meanwhile, has an obvious uphill climb for one of those first-round byes, given the current three-way tie for ninth and a closing game against second-place Notre Dame. But the Huskies also own a 4-2 record against the other teams that could wind up tying for a spot in the top eight, so there are combinations that could elevate them should they beat the Irish.
The Huskies have now lost six of 10 since a 17-2 start, but UConn is still a lock for an NCAA tournament berth with its quality wins and high RPI.
While that defensive effort down the stretch was crucial to West Virginia's win Wednesday night in front of a Coliseum crowd of 13,241, it appeared for a while that the Mountaineers might not be able to take advantage. They missed free throws - including two on a technical foul by Casey Mitchell, who had made 20 in a row dating back to Jan. 8 - turned the ball over at the most inopportune times and had a series of calls go against them.
In the end, though, they made the biggest plays.
Kilicli got it started by scoring five points in the 6-0 run that gave WVU the lead for good after it was 51-50, three on free throws and then a basket on an impossible post move essentially from behind the basket. That score was set up when Flowers picked off a Napier pass on an inbounds play.
After Napier finally made a shot to draw the Huskies within 56-53, Jones - who recovered from a one-for-six first half to make all five second-half shots and earn his second straight double-double with 15 points and 10 rebounds - somehow managed the rip a rebound away from Alex Oriakhi and lay the ball in with 90 seconds to play to make it 58-53.
"Honestly, I didn't even see the rim on that shot,'' Jones said of the put-back. "My instinct was to get it and take it back outside (and run more clock), but I just put it up and it went in.''
The Huskies began fouling after that and Bryant, who missed his first try, made seven straight to seal the win.
Mazzulla, who dominated play in the first half, led West Virginia with 18 points and five assists. He scored 14 in a five-for-five first half that included four outside shots, completely against his trait of driving to the basket. He would have had two more points, but two of his outside shots came with just the tip of one sneaker clearly on the 3-point line.
Thoroughman had six assists, Flowers had seven points, six rebounds and four assists, and Kilicli had seven points and two blocks.
Walker finished with 22 points and Napier 18. They took 38 of UConn's 59 shots, 23 of 33 in the second half. The Huskies began the game three-of-12 from the floor and ended it two-of-14, shooting just over 50 percent in the middle but only 37.3 for the game.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickm...@aol.com.
WVU 65, UCONN 56
Connecticut (21-8, 9-8)
Player FG FT R A P
Roscoe Smith 0-2 0-0 2 0 0