WASHINGTON - It has become painfully obvious during West Virginia's first 14 games of the season that this is not a particularly skilled group overall on the offensive end of the floor.
Oh, the Mountaineers can score at times, but it's usually streaky or painful to watch. Sometimes it's both.
Then there is the WVU defense. How many games this team wins across the second half of the schedule is likely to be determined by what happens on that end of the floor
If Saturday is any indication, the forecast is looking better.
The Mountaineers befuddled No. 13 Georgetown with sticky halfcourt defense for most of the game and then completely clamped down in the final 21/2 minutes, handing the Hoyas a 65-59 loss Saturday at the Verizon Center.
"Defense has always been our calling card. We got away from it a little bit [in recent games],'' West Virginia forward Kevin Jones said. "Now you can see the difference when we play defense like we did today.''
Indeed, after struggling in recent weeks and allowing an average of 80 points in the first two games of the Big East season, West Virginia (10-4, 2-2 Big East) has given up 65 and 59 in winning the last two. That defense was particularly impressive Saturday against a Georgetown team that was averaging 78.
For instance, although the Hoyas (12-4, 1-3) shot an even 50 percent for the game, they managed only 44 shots in 40 minutes. Over a stretch of nearly nine minutes to end the first half, Georgetown was able to get off just five shots.
"We just lock people down,'' point guard Truck Bryant said. "They [the Hoyas] usually get five or six back cuts a game, and they got maybe two. They made a couple of jump shots, but they're going to make a few.''
But in winning for the fourth time in a row at the Verizon Center (second straight over Georgetown, plus two games in the 2008 NCAA tournament against Arizona and Duke), West Virginia's defense saved the best for last. After Casey Mitchell (28 points) scored nine points in a row to ignite the Mountaineers and Jones (15 points, eight rebounds) hit a 3-pointer with 6:51 to play to give WVU the lead for good, it was all about defense. The critical stops came in the final 2:35 with West Virginia holding a tenuous 62-59 lead.
Georgetown's next shot came with the outcome already decided and Chris Wright hoisting up a meaningless 3-point attempt at the end of the game. For the most part, it came with Jones, Bryant, John Flowers, Joe Mazzulla and Cam Thoroughman on the floor.
"We actually huddled up right before [the final serious Georgetown possession with 20.8 seconds to play] and said we were the five most experienced guys and we needed to get it done,'' said Thoroughman.
In those final 21/2 minutes, Georgetown turned the ball over on four straight possessions, the last three when Jason Clark (16 points, four turnovers) either threw it away or got tangled up on ill-advised drives to the basket. The final two times it was Thoroughman who was right in the middle of things, either causing or picking up the loose balls.
"Right place, right time I guess,'' he said modestly.
The last turnover came with 11 seconds to play. Bryant hit two free throws to ice things before point guard Wright (nine points, five turnovers) finally got off a shot after WVU had turned off its defense and had earned its first win of the season over a ranked team (in its second try; there are 11 more to come based on this week's rankings).
"Coach keeps telling us that the way we play defense and rebound, there aren't going to be many games we're not in,'' said Thoroughman. "We just have to keep doing that.''
Perhaps the best bit of defensive work overall was done by Flowers, the 6-foot-7 senior who leads the Big East in blocked shots. He didn't have any against Georgetown, but he smothered Big East preseason player of the year Austin Freeman, holding him scoreless in the first half. Freeman finished with 11 points, including a pair of big 3-pointers, but Flowers only played eight minutes in the second half because of foul trouble.
"We tried to give him a couple of different looks, things he's not used to seeing,'' Jones said of Freeman, who was averaging 18.3 points. "And John did a great job on him with his length.''
All but lost in the defensive effort was the play of Mitchell on offense. Not only did he break out for 28 points - three short of his career high - he did it with a terrific all-around game. He had two assists, two blocked shots, a steal and he made 10-of-19 shots (4-of-7 on 3s).
West Virginia also outrebounded Georgetown 32-23 and, although there were times when the Mountaineers struggled against the press, they turned it over just 13 times, five fewer than the Hoyas.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickm...@aol.com.
WVU 65, Georgetown 59
West Virginia (10-4)
Player FG FT R A P
Kevin Jones 5-12 4-6 8 3 15
Deniz Kilicli 1-3 0-0 4 1 2