HARTFORD, Conn. - West Virginia had every opportunity to make it two wins in a row over Top 25 teams Monday night. In the end, though, the Mountaineers couldn't handle success.
Call it another object lesson for WVU's youngsters, who played more than their share thanks to foul trouble to the team's few veterans. But this one was particularly hard to take.
After leading by as many as eight points in the first half and 10 with less than 11 to play, WVU allowed No. 17 Connecticut to blow back and take a 64-57 win in front of a loud crowd of 15,805 at the XL Center.
In a game that turned on a dime - UConn answered a 13-2 WVU run with a 15-2 run of its own - it might have been the atmosphere as much as anything that got to the Mountaineers.
"You could see the freshmen didn't really know what to do,'' West Virginia senior forward Kevin Jones said. "We tried to calm them down, but we weren't running offense and we couldn't get settled down.''
Connecticut used that 15-2 run to erase that 10-point West Virginia lead and go up 55-51 with just under four minutes to play. The Mountaineers got it back to 55-all with 3:01 to go on a Jones breakaway dunk, but Jeremy Lamb's 14-foot jumper gave Connecticut a 57-55 lead and the Mountaineers never were able to catch up.
"It wasn't all the crowd. They stepped up the pressure and took some things away from us,'' West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said. "But it's hard for us to score when we don't pass the ball. We don't have a guy like Jeremy Lamb who can create shots. We have to run our offense.''
The Mountaineers still had a chance in the final seconds when Jones, with WVU down 60-57, missed a 3-pointer with just under 20 seconds to play. The ball appeared to go out of bounds to WVU, but it was awarded to the Huskies. Lamb made two free throws and then a layup at the buzzer and it was over.
The loss snapped a modest two-game win streak for the Mountaineers (12-5, 3-2 Big East) and prevented them from building on the momentum of Saturday's home win over then-No. 9 Georgetown.
Connecticut, which dropped from No. 8 to No. 17 in this week's Associated Press poll after losing back-to-back games at Seton Hall and Rutgers last week, snapped that losing streak and improved to 13-3 overall and 3-2 in the Big East.
Jones finished with 22 points, while a foul-plagued Deniz Kilicli had 12 for the Mountaineers. Truck Bryant and Jabarie Hinds had eight points each and Gary Browne had five points and four assists.
But Bryant was also 2-for-13 from the floor and sat out 12 minutes of the first half in foul trouble. Kilicli also sat the final 12 minutes of the first half and then for chunks of the second. His 12 points came in just 21 minutes.
UConn was led by the All-America Lamb's 25 points and the 20 points and 11 rebounds from intimidating freshman big man Andre Drummond. The Huskies also shot 55 percent from the floor.
While Lamb's scoring was vital, it was Drummond who really made a difference, especially when Kilicli was sidelined with foul trouble. The 6-foot-10 freshman, who decided to go to Connecticut only days before the start of classes, swooped in for thunderous dunks, hit soft turn-arounds and blocked three shots.
He and Lamb combined for 11 of UConn's 15 points in that comeback run.
"It really kind of broke our momentum when Deniz went out,'' Jones said, referring to Kilicli's fourth foul early in that run. "He was doing a good job on Drummond until then.''
The problem, though, was as much offensive as it was defensive. West Virginia had made a living with second-chance points during its own second-half run, then not only failed to hit the boards but also failed to get good first shots.
"We were up 10 and that's the time you really want to run the offense and get good shots,'' Jones said. "But we acted like we were down 10 points.''
It all began when Lamb scored on an alley-oop dunk to get the crowd back into the game, Bryant and Browne missed drives to the basket and Kilicli was whistled for his fourth foul and went to the bench.
Soon the Huskies, who couldn't buy an offensive rebound (they had none until more than five minutes into the second half), were dominating inside and out. When Drummond wasn't throwing down monster dunks, Lamb was hitting 3s and 6-foot freshman Ryan Boatright was stealing the ball in the backcourt and dunking.
The Boatright dunk evened the score at 48, Lamb's 3-pointer gave the Huskies the lead and the 15-2 run gave UConn all the momentum, for at least a short time.
The second half was a stark contrast to the first. Somehow, the Mountaineers managed to grab and hold onto a lead in the first half despite both personnel and statistical mountains placed in front of them.
From a personnel standpoint, there was the absence of both Bryant and Kilicli for the final 12 minutes of the half. In their place, the Mountaineers went with Jones and a cast of newcomers. For the bulk of the time it was Browne, Hinds, Aaron Brown and Kevin Noreen. Dominique Rutledge replaced Noreen for a few minutes and Keaton Miles came in for Brown, but all in all it was just Jones and rookies.
Amazingly, that group took a 14-13 deficit and turned it into a 33-28 halftime lead. Part of that was due to the statistical anomaly that was UConn in the first half. Connecticut didn't miss its first shot until nearly four minutes into the game, and with six minutes to play before the break had missed only two. By halftime UConn was shooting 57.9 percent (starting 11-for-16 and then missing the last three), yet trailed 33-28.
The reason was that turnover issue. The Huskies had nine (WVU with its young lineup had just three) and at one point went four straight possessions (and six of nine) without getting off a shot.
What the Huskies did do right, though, in the first half probably saved them from being down by well into double figures. The towering UConn front line blocked six first-half WVU shots, including three layups by Brown and one each by Hinds and Rutledge.
After playing twice in three days, West Virginia now gets a few extra days off. The Mountaineers don't play again until a home game against Rutgers at 2 p.m. Saturday. After that is the annual game with Marshall in Charleston a week from Wednesday.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickm...@aol.com.
Connecticut 64, West Virginia 57