TAMPA, Fla. - There were more than a few "Wait! What?'' moments in the days leading up to West Virginia's final regular-season Big East game ever.
Most of them, at least in the Mountaineers' camp, centered on the same topic - all the talk, including that of coach Bob Huggins, regarding the great defense played by Saturday's opponent, South Florida.
"Every time I heard that,'' Truck Bryant said, "I thought, 'Hey, that's what we're known for.' ''
Indeed. And while that defensive reputation has perhaps taken a few hits this season, it was back in all its glory Saturday at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.
The Mountaineers one-upped the Big East's best defensive team, making far more plays - and all the critical ones - in a 50-44 win.
The victory, in front of a season-high USF crowd of 9,737 there for the Bulls' self-proclaimed "biggest home game in 20 years,'' all but shut the door on any debate about West Virginia's NCAA tourney hopes. The Mountaineers (19-11, 9-9 Big East) will almost certainly hear their name called a week from today.
The Bulls are also 19-11 and a much-better 12-6 in league play, but because of a far weaker resume might still have to sweat out Selection Sunday.
Defense? Well, in a game in which West Virginia shot 28.8 percent (the lowest in a WVU win since 1957), made only 15 field goals (fewest in a win since 1951) and made not a single shot in the final seven minutes, that was the difference. That and deadly (18-for-21) free-throw shooting.
While some of that defensive effort was born purely of necessity, just as much was a result of pride.
"It's very personal when your defense has been known as the backbone of your program and people are talking about somebody else's defense,'' Kevin Jones said. "We took it personally. We came out with a chip on our shoulders and wanted to prove everybody wrong.''
It certainly wasn't just one man's defense or one stretch, either. West Virginia set the tone in the first half while taking as much as a seven-point lead, forcing the Bulls out of their offense and making them rely on 3-point attempts. They made just one of 10.
In the second half, after giving up an early run and trailing by three with eight minutes to play, West Virginia simply clamped down. Bryant's only two field goals of the game gave the Mountaineers the lead and they won down the stretch despite making no more shots but hitting 9-of-10 free throws and smothering the Bulls.
First there were Bryant and Jones both with steals under the basket during a stretch in which USF turned the ball over on four of five possessions. Jabarie Hinds had another steal in that stretch.
There was Jones' big-time block of what USF's Gus Gilchrist thought sure was going to be a dunk with the scored tied at 44 and the Bulls ready to ignite their crowd with two minutes to play.
Then, after Jones' two free throws made it 46-44, there was freshman Gary Browne taking a charge from Jawanza Poland with 39.7 seconds to play that would, as it turned out, be USF's last gasp.
"I've taken harder charges than that,'' Browne laughed later.
"Yeah,'' Bryant said. "I run into him a lot harder than that every day in practice.''
That was pretty much the end, in part, because of how South Florida chose to address the remaining 39.7 seconds. Down by two and with only a 4.7-second difference between the shot clock and the game clock, the Bulls waited 26 seconds before fouling Bryant, who to that point was 2-for-11 from the field but 10-for-10 on free throws.
Naturally he made both to make it 48-44 and USF just didn't have time sans a miracle. Jones finished it by making two more free throws in front of a crowd that by then was made up mostly of 2,000 or so transplanted West Virginians.
"We let the clock run down way too far,'' USF coach Stan Heath admitted. "We wanted to foul [Deniz] Kilicli [a 55-percent free-throw shooter] if he touched the ball, but he never did. And we certainly didn't want to foul their best shooter.''
Jones had just two second-half points before making four free throws in the final two minutes, but was huge in the first half and finished with 18 points and 11 rebounds, seven of them on offense, giving him his 20th double-double of the year.
Bryant was just the opposite. He had 12 of his 16 points in the second half, including eight of his 12 free throws. Browne had six rebounds, four points and three steals, while Kilicli had seven rebounds and two assists but had seven rebounds and no turnovers.
South Florida got a team-high 11 points on 10 shots by freshman point guard Anthony Collins, which says plenty more about WVU's defensive effort. The Mountaineers so smothered everyone else that Collins, the brother of former Mountaineer J.D. Collins, who is seventh on the team in field-goal attempts this season, had to be the go-to guy.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickm...@aol.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.
WVU 50, USF 44
WVU 50, USF 44
WVU (19-12, 9-9)