Win and play on. That was the goal, and it was accomplished by the Mountaineers this afternoon. It wasn't easy, and it was rarely pretty. Instead, the Mountaineers overcame a ten point first half deficit to grit out an 84-76 win to outlast the tired legs of a Tiger team that had played less that 48 hours before.
Here's what's to note as the 'Eers begin to prepare for their
2nd 3rd round matchup against the winner of the Kentucky/Princeton game.
Dalton Pepper! I've been high on Pepper even as he's endured shooting slumps and lack of playing time. Today was his day. The tournament makes memories, and it makes players. For Mountaineer Nation, today is Dalton Pepper day. Everyone will be talking about his three steals and four points in a thirty second span which clinched the game for West Virginia. What's equally impressive was what Pepper did with his other 16 minutes on the court: 6 more points, 3 rebounds and a pair of assists. Still, his pickpocket impression with under two minutes ended the last Clemson run and sealed the game for the Mountaineers, and Pepper's place in West Virginia lore. Rarely has one player utterly dominated the game for a shot but decisive stretch. Really, an incredible all around performance from the sophomore.
Can't Foul. West Virginia was dogged by foul trouble, and will have trouble advancing if that trend continues. This game was called in a very uneven manner early, and the result was a quick trip to bench for John Flowers. Clemson took advantage in the first half and absolutely torched Cam Thoroughman and Deniz Kilicli on the blocks throwing the lob to Tiger big men. Once Flowers returned to action, he and the rest of the Mountaineer big men were able to push their men off the blocks, and Clemson was never able to establish a post presence again. Flowers, Kilicli, Thoroughman and Mazzulla all finished with four personal fouls, so this one could have quickly gotten away from the 'Eers if those key players had fouled out.
The 2 out of 3 rule. I've developed this theory that for West Virginia to win, they need two out of their three guards to play well and create points, either for themselves or others. Today, those two were Truck Bryant and Joe Mazzulla. Truck slashed to the basket and got hung up, as he usually does. This afternoon however, he also managed to both get the foul calls and get a couple to actually drop. Both guards were huge at the line today combining to hit 18 of 21 free throws. Mazzulla dished out 7 assists and created good looks for Kevin Jones and Deniz Kilicli, who were both able to finish in double figures. Casey Mitchell missed two threes, but created two other baskets, but was a non-factor due to Dalton Pepper's strong play defensively.
- Survive and advance. Bob Huggins has now won his first game in three out of four NCAA Tournament appearances with West Virginia. Honestly, that's pretty impressive considering West Virginia's pedigree. Not so much, considering Huggins'. Right now Kentucky and Princeton are in a dogfight, so it's too soon to tell who the Mountaineers' next opponent will be. Whomever the Mountaineers face Saturday, the guards hitting shots and the post being able to defend while staying out of foul trouble, two things which have eluded the Mountaineers for long stretches this afternoon, will be key to surviving until next weekend.