By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
NEW YORK —
If you can remember the Bill Murray movie “Groundhog Day,” then you know exactly how Bob Huggins feels about his team’s final season in the Big East.
It has been the same game, over and over and over … get a lead, squander it, lose and say you hope you learn from it.
Only this time there is no tomorrow.
For the second time this season Connecticut faced a double-digit deficit against West Virginia University, battled back in and stole away the game, eliminating the Mountaineers from their final Big East Tournament, 71-67, in overtime on Wednesday in Madison Square Garden.
And to say they stole the game away is not in any way to misstate it.
With WVU leading 63-54 with 3:57 to go, guard Shabazz Napier stole everything but Bob Huggins’ parking place at the Coliseum. First he hit a 3-point shot, then two free throws, then stole the ball and scored on a layup and then stole the ball away and scored a layup to tie the score.
“They took the ball right out of our hands,” said Kevin Jones, whose final Big East Tournament game was a big one with 25 points and 10 rebounds, but who could do nothing down the stretch as the Huskies employed the strategy of moving a big man onto Jones.
It was an incredible performance by Napier and – well, the same old story for WVU, which somehow managed to play six overtime games this season and squandered double-figure leads in the second half double figure times.
“I thought Shabazz was close to magnificent,” UConn coach Jim Calhoun said after the game, Napier finishing with 26 points, six assists, three blocks and three steals, including the two at the end that turned the game.
Napier also slowed down Truck Bryant at key moments in the game, Bryant finishing with 20 points but hitting only 4 of 14 field goals.
“I think Bryant had a very difficult time,” Calhoun said. “Shabazz did an incredible job on him. We all did a good job of switching because at times Shabazz was just great. He wasn’t good defensively. He was great. Bryant is a hell of a player.”
Jones still seemed somewhat shocked by it all when it was over.
“Just a little disbelief, disappointment,” he said. “My team played their hardest. We didn’t make the correct decisions at the end. We didn’t hold onto the ball. They stole it, two turnovers for layups that they really didn’t earn.”
Call it, if you must, freshman mistakes for Gary Browne and Jabarie Hinds were involved and it did detract from the so many good things they had done to help WVU get the lead … but then that’s the theme of this whole thing.
It keeps happening over and over.
Jones would look at his freshman teammates as UConn turned up the pressure and began coming back, and he saw a look he’d seen all year in the same situation.
“A little panic was on their faces,” he said. “It was like ‘Oh, no, here we go again.’”
“The freshmen just did not know how to react,” Bryant said. “We gave the game away.”
Over the final 5:34 WVU was outscored 13-6, none of the six points being Jones’ as UConn completely took him out of the game. His last points came at 6:18 on two free throws, his last basket at 8:36, and that was goaltending call.
“They made a key emphasis of finding where I was,” said Jones, who had dominated until the middle of the second half. “They also put Andre Drummond on me. But I have to demand the ball.”
The Mountaineers nearly lost in regulation and Napier got a pretty good look at a 3 as time ran out but missed it, Dominique Rutledge taking care of the rebound to make sure there was no tip.
But overtime found WVU overmatched. The Mountaineers scored two points, both free throws by Bryant.
No field goals. They took 11 shots, three of them layups.
Now the wait begins. Sunday night they will find out if they have done enough to get into the NCAA Tournament.
Bob Huggins believes they have.
He’s said so every day … but that’s how it is when you live in a “Groundhog Day” world.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.