By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Pressure is the word of the day.
Rick Pitino and his Louisville Cardinals used defensive pressure to steal a 77-74 victory away from the West Virginia University Mountaineers before 11,254 fans who shrugged off the snow to come to the Coliseum on Saturday.
Because of that, WVU now feels all kinds of pressure as it finds its NCAA Tournament chances slipping away.
The loss, West Virginia’s fifth in the last six games, the last four of which were by six points or less, left then at 16-10 for the year and below .500 in Big East Conference play at 6-7.
And nothing gets easier, for the next two games are at Pitt and Notre Dame, before closing out with games at home against Marquette and DePaul and a difficult season-ending trip to Tampa to play at an improved South Florida.
West Virginia discovered a way to lose this one despite Kevin Jones’ 17th double-double that included his 10th 20-point effort in the last 11 games. Jones finished with 22 points and 11 rebounds.
Deniz Kilicli had 17 points and Truck Bryant had 13 points but suffered another dismal shooting day, hitting 3 of 17, including an air ball on a desperation 3 at the buzzer after two free throws by the Cardinals’ Kyle Kuric clinched the outcome after stealing an ill-advised pass by freshman guard Gary Browne intended for Jones.
“I was open for a second. I could see from his view like I was open more than I really was, and (Kyle) Kuric came
up and made the head’s-up play and stole the ball,” said Jones. “That was all on me. That had nothing to do with Gary. As a senior leader I should have come and got the ball instead of waiting for the ball to come to me. I take full responsibility for that play.”
But the truth of the matter is that play should not have mattered, for WVU at one point in the first half had built a 13-point lead and with 5:52 left in the game it still possessed a 7-point advantage. But there were some ominous signs, not the least of which being Kilicli having foolishly picked up a technical foul, his third, that made him spend much of the second half on the bench and led to his eventually fouling out.
And then there was the style with which the game was officiated, a style which neither the fans nor coach Bob Huggins was particularly fond of. The fans were more vocal on the matter, not being subject to discipline from the Big East, but Huggins left no doubt where he stood on the matter with a running conversation with the officiating crew during which the term “nice call” never was used.
As an exclamation point, Huggins addressed the matter as much as he dared in his post-game comments, especially about the physical nature of the Louisville press.
“If you are allowed to press that way, we should all press,” he said to open his comments.
And when asked to assess Louisville’s full-court pressure, he reiterated this:
“When you are allowed to play that way, then it is great strategy. That is what I think.”
The statistics do not necessarily back Huggins up in his stand, Louisville having been called for 23 fouls to 16 for WVU and having taken only 15 free throws to 27 for the Mountaineers.
More pertinent, as he would also note, was his team’s inability to make those free throws, hitting only 17 of them. In fact, in the first half, WVU’s field goal percentage was higher than its free-throw percentage.
Still, the pressure threw the Mountaineers out of sync completely.
They scored their 71st point with 5:52 left in the game. They would score 3 more points the rest of the way, that coming with 50 seconds left when Kevin Jones scored and was fouled, making the free throw to cut the Louisville lead to 75-74.
But Kyle Kuric made his steal of Browne’s pass and was fouled, making both free throws, to put it away.
It was Louisville’s third steal in the final 2:20, leading to six points.
The victory for the Cardinals ended a string of three straight defeats at the Coliseum for them, something has been a burr under coach Rick Pitino’s saddle, always having to come to a difficult place ot play.
“More exciting than the victory is we are not coming back,” Pitino said, referring to WVU’s exit stage left for the Big 12 Conference.
It has been a tense, exciting series with the last four games decided by a total of nine points.
If there was a difference in the two teams in this game it was the Louisville bench, which outscored the Mountaineers bench, 31-11 with Wayne Blackshear, a McDonald’s All-American, making a spectacular collegiate debut on his birthday, scoring 13 points and hitting 3 of 5 3-point shots.
“I was always planning on playing him,” Pitino said, never having announced that he would. “I didn’t want Huggs to prepare for him. With today’s world of Internet and everyone knowing information, I decided to play him today. It was his birthday.”
He had a happy birthday, not so for Mountaineer mascot Brock Burwell, who had nothing to take from the day but the echoes of the student section singing “Happy Birthday” to him.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/bhertzel.