PITTSBURGH -- If West Virginia was ever going to reverse the slide it has been in for nearly a month now, there was perhaps no better place, time or opponent against which to do it than this.
Playing the last Backyard Brawl as a Big East member and in front of a gold-clad Panther sellout at the Petersen Events Center, West Virginia -- at least for the short term -- ended its funk in a big way.
The Mountaineers used a big second half to pull away from Pitt, erupting for a 16-point lead and then maintaining their composure and making free throws down the stretch for a 66-48 win Thursday night.
The difference between this game and so many others of late? Desire said Kevin Jones.
"It comes down to who plays the toughest and wants it the most at the end,'' said the senior forward, who 16 points, 13 rebounds and two blocks were all game highs. "I thought we played tougher down the stretch.''
That's not been the case in WVU games of late. The Mountaineers lost leads against Notre Dame and Louisville down the stretch, part of the reason they found themselves with a losing Big East record for a time.
Now West Virginia (17-10, 7-7 Big East) can only hope that Thursday night's win marks the start of an abrupt turnaround. Going into the game the Mountaineers had lost five of the last six and their NCAA tournament chances had plummeted from a near-certain top-four seed to a bubble team.
Now WVU has to keep it going. But it won't be easy. For starters, the Mountaineers don't play again until Wednesday. And when they do get back onto the floor they face No. 23 Notre Dame on the road and then No. 12 Marquette at home in the space of three days.
"We've got to go into Notre Dame with the same mindset,'' Jones said. "We have to play every minute and we have to be the tougher team.''
For Pitt, the loss almost certainly forces the Panthers into a position of having to make a very deep run in -- or winning -- the Big East tournament in order to make the NCAA field. Pitt (15-12, 4-10) has now lost three straight (and had an earlier eight-game skid) after a four-game win streak that included a victory over WVU at the Coliseum.
In breaking a Deniz Kilicli was also huge at times and finished with 14 points. Freshman guard Gary Browne added 12 points and five assists and Jabarie Hinds had five points, three assists and three steals.
The story perhaps, though, was Truck Bryant, who didn't start for the first time since his sophomore season, but finished with 15 points and a career-high four steals. He also made six of his seven free throws -- part of WVU's 18-for-19 performance in the game -- and was solid in almost every phase.
That's not been the case of late for the senior guard, who last did not start a game in which he played more than two years ago, an early January 2010 game against Purdue.
West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said Bryant's demotion was simply a matter of minutes. Bryant has been playing 40 minutes per game and Huggins said the best way to cut that down was to take him out at the start of each half.
"Even now, when I put him in there I have trouble taking him out,'' Huggins said.
Bryant, who was involved in an altercation in downtown Morgantown in the wee hours of Sunday morning, did not seem happy about not starting afterward, but said he wasn't told why.
"I don't know,'' he said. "Coach came to me at shoot-around and said, 'I can't start you.' That's all I know. It's his decision.''
With Bryant and the two freshman guards on the floor for virtually the entire second half, they caused Pitt's backcourt strength of Tray Woodall and Ashton Gibbs a ton of trouble.
Pitt shot just 29 percent in the second half and 37 percent for the game and got 12 points and eight assists from Woodall, who had 24 in Pitt's win at the Coliseum 21/2 weeks ago. And Gibbs, the preseason Big East player of the year, had eight points on 2-for-11 shooting.
Leading by just one at halftime, West Virginia began to slowly open a lead in the second half. With six different players scoring in the first eight minutes, the Mountaineers turned that 26-25 edge into a 40-33 as the clock turned under 11 minutes.
Pitt seemed to be ready to turn things around when it came out of the television timeout at that point with the crowd roaring and immediately got a three-point play from Woodall.
But West Virginia was not rattled that time, was patient on offense and got the margin up to 44-36 and forced Pitt coach Jamie Dixon to call time and stop the bleeding.
It didn't work. Kilicli converted a post move into a dunk and a free throw, Browne hit a follow shot then turned a steal into a pass to Bryant for a three-point play and West Virginia suddenly was up 52-36 with 6:52 to play.
It was never really close after that.
If not terribly artistic (17 turnovers and 3-for-14 3-point shooting combined), the first half was certainly competitive. West Virginia's largest lead was five early and Pitt didn't lead until the four-minute mark. But after it was 9-4, neither team led by more than three the rest of the half and the Mountaineers were up 26-25 at the break.
Bryant, after seeing his starting streak end, actually put together a pretty good half. After shooting 20 percent on 3-pointers the last seven games, he made his first 3, stole the ball in the backcourt for his second break-away dunk this month and was in position to follow Browne when Browne got a similar steal and missed a layup.
West Virginia, which gave up 36 points in the paint to Pitt in Morgantown, outscored the Panthers there 30-16 this time, as well as 23-10 in points off of turnovers.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickm...@aol.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1