TAMPA, Fla. - Bob Huggins spent a good portion of West Virginia's halftime break during Saturday's NCAA tournament game with Kentucky talking about what to expect from the Wildcats right off the bat in the second half.
For the second game in a row, the Mountaineers had used a stunning spurt at the end of the first half to change momentum. Against Clemson on Thursday it was a 9-0 run in 95 seconds that tied the score. Against UK it was an 8-0 spurt in 46 seconds that had given WVU the lead.
It became quickly apparent, however, that Kentucky was no Clemson, and when West Virginia punched this time, the Wildcats punched back.
Overcoming an eight-point halftime deficit, UK dominated for stretches of the second half to regain the lead and then held on at the end to beat the Mountaineers 71-63 in the third round of the NCAA tournament at the St. Pete Times Forum.
The loss ends a rather remarkable season for West Virginia (21-12), which made it back to the NCAA tournament and won a game one year after losing three of its top five players from a Final Four club. Last year's team beat Kentucky 73-66 in the Elite Eight to reach the school's first Final Four in 51 years.
Kentucky (27-8) now heads to the East Regional in Newark, N.J., where the fourth-seeded Wildcats are likely to face overall No. 1 seed Ohio State next Friday. The Buckeyes face No. 8 seed George Mason today.
"I guess [it was] just lack of focus on our part,'' guard Joe Mazzulla said of West Virginia's meltdown to start the second half, one from which it never fully recovered. "It was a lack of intensity coming out in the second half. Yeah, I think that had a lot to do with it. We knew they were going to come out strong and we had talked about trying to weather that storm in the first four or five minutes, and we didn't do a good job.''
Leading 41-33 at halftime after putting together that amazing run at the end of the first half, West Virginia ran into a buzzsaw to start the second 20 minutes. Kentucky had done the same thing to start the game, jumping out to a seven-point lead, so everyone knew it was important not to begin the second half the same way.
But then Kentucky just dominated, scoring the first 11 points to regain the lead while the Mountaineers were missing their first seven shots.
"We kind of stepped on them for the most part and got them out of what they wanted to do [for much of the first half after that initial burst],'' said WVU forward Kevin Jones. "But in the second half we let them get out in transition, get easy baskets and the key players started getting into the flow of the game.''
None of those key players for Kentucky came up bigger than freshman point guard Brandon Knight. A game after struggling with his shot until making the winning layup to beat Princeton, Knight started out by scoring 12 of UK's first 16 points. He then pretty much put the game away with free throws at the end and finished with a career-high 30 points.
It was not just Knight, though. When Kentucky needed baskets in the second half it got them from SEC freshman of the year Terrence Jones and overlooked senior center Josh Harrellson. Jones had 12 points and 10 rebounds for the game after being limited to two points and three boards in the first 20 minutes.
But it was Harrellson who might have been the difference. A 6-foot-10, 275-pounder who averages just seven points, he cleaned up every mistake the freshman-dominated Wildcats made. He finished with 15 points and eight rebounds and wound up getting Kentucky's eventual go-ahead-for-good basket by rebounding a missed 3-pointer, missing the follow and then rebounding that at putting it in.
"He's a game-changer for them,'' said West Virginia's Cam Thoroughman, who as a 6-7, 235-pound starting center typified the size disadvantage the Mountaineers had.
When West Virginia wasn't able to spread the floor in the second half, that size advantage for the Wildcats took its toll.
"We're just too small not to spread people,'' said WVU coach Bob Huggins, who lost for only the second time in 10 meetings with UK coach John Calipari. "We just get swallowed up with size if we don't spread people.''
Still, West Virginia had its chances, even after giving up the lead to start the second half. Sparked by Casey Mitchell's four-point play when he made a 3 and was fouled by Knight, the Mountaineers recovered and took the lead at 55-51 on a Truck Bryant drive to the basket.
But from that point WVU missed five straight shots and turned the ball over twice while Kentucky was regaining the lead with a 10-1 run. Jones got the Mountaineers within a possession on a post move that made it 61-58 with just over two minutes to play, but Bryant saw a 3-pointer go in and out with the Mountaineers down 62-58 with 1:24 to go, then Jonnie West shot a tightly contested airball 3-pointer when it was 64-58. That pretty much closed the book.
"He got a great look, but it's hard,'' Huggins said of West's off-target shot that was pretty much the last gasp. "It's hard after sitting [on the bench] the whole game.''
Mazzulla had another excellent game against the Wildcats with a career-high 20 points. A year ago he scored 17 in the win in Syracuse and was the regional MVP. But he was also limited in the second half and was fouled hard by Eloy Vargas.
"I don't know if that was the game plan or not, but Vargas got me pretty good,'' said Mazzulla, who was noticeably limping after the game.
Bryant scored 15 points, Mitchell 11 and Jones had eight points and nine rebounds. The Mountaineers were outrebounded 34-30 and shot 41.5 percent, 33 percent in the second half.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickm...@aol.com.
Kentucky 71, West Virginia 63
West Virginia (21-12)
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