WVU basketball: Bryant, Jones need to step up
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- All involved on West Virginia's men's basketball team Wednesday night said they entered the game at Louisville defying distractions and expecting to win.
The 23rd-ranked Cardinals got out to a quick 11-5 lead, and the Mountaineers would go on to miss eight of their first 12 shots.
"I thought we came out early and we were just kind of like we were supposed to lose," WVU Coach Bob Huggins said. "That's why I called the early timeout. We weren't very assertive. Then I thought we got pretty assertive."
The Mountaineers made seven of the next 10 shots. Guard Joe Mazzulla played arguably his best half of basketball and scored 18 points, more in those 20 minutes than he'd had in any other game in his career.
Dalton Pepper came off the bench and not only scored for the first time in seven games, but scored seven points.
The WVU halftime lead was 11 points and Huggins' team looked not only like the club that thought it could win, but like the team that would win.
Never mind Casey Mitchell, the team's leading scorer, was suspended Monday, just one day after Danny Jennings left the team during a win against South Florida.
"We like having our backs against the wall," Mazzulla said. "We feel like we thrive in that situation."
It was a fleeting feeling.
WVU scored just 17 points in the second half and missed 18 of 22 shots. They were outscored by 12, admitted fatigue, missed key free throws and were defeated, 55-54, by a circus shot in the final seconds.
So, the Mountaineers (13-6, 4-3) fell into eighth place in the Big East, and got onto a bus for a 100-mile ride up I-71 to Cincinnati, where WVU will meet Huggins' former team Saturday at 8. The host Bearcats (18-3, 5-3) beat Rutgers 72-56 on Wednesday night.
With Mazzulla and Pepper playing above their averages and doing their part to replace Mitchell's productivity and 16.8 points per game, the outcome at Louisville's new KFC Yum! Center still went against the Mountaineers ... and went back to one noticeable statistic.
"My two returning starters," Huggins said, "are, between them, 4-for-21."
No matter who is healthy and available for WVU, Kevin Jones and Truck Bryant will have to play well for the team to do well. In the loss, Jones was 3-for-13 for eight points and Bryant was 1-for-8 and scored nine points.
Bryant was also 6-for-10 from the free throw line with four misses in the final 2:48, including two with 25 seconds left that allowed Louisville to hit the game-winner with 4.5 seconds to go.
Jones was 0-for-5 from 3-point range and Bryant was 1-for-7.
"We needed people to step up as a whole and we got that, but me and Kevin didn't step up and I don't think we did what we needed to do," Bryant said. "The reason we lost the game is because I missed free throws and K.J. missed a couple shots and I missed a couple shots.
"It all falls on me and K.J. We're the two leading scorers on the team right now and we didn't get it done."
Jones remains the team's top all-around player and Bryant becomes the team's main perimeter threat with Mitchell gone. Bryant is 19-of-59 from 3-point range, though, and has missed 22-of-26 attempts after starting Big East play by making 4 of 6 in a home loss to St. John's.
With Mitchell out and the scoring clearly upon Jones and Bryant, Pepper and Mazzulla thrived. Their scoring is not a pattern, though.
Pepper was averaging 3.2 points in 11.3 minutes and played well enough to get 21 minutes and 10 points and reach double figures for the first time since the second game of the season.
Mazzulla's career-high was 17 against Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament regional final last year. The senior guard had only reached double figures 15 times in his first 130 career games. He was also scoreless in the second half and missed his two shots.
"I told Joe (Tuesday) he's our secret weapon," Huggins said. "He came shooting 7 percent (from 3-point range) and they probably don't think he'll make one. But he's worked really hard at shooting the ball."
There aren't many other options. WVU traveled with eight scholarship players and two walk-ons. Only seven of those on scholarship played as Jonnie West remained on the bench all game. Mazzulla said fatigue led to "lazy" turnovers and WVU was outrebounded in the second half, 23-17.
Yet the Mountaineers were content with where things stood at the conclusion.
"The five guys we had at the end were two three-year starters, two fifth-year seniors and a fourth-year senior," Mazzulla said. "I think the experience took care of a lot of things and I think we communicated a lot better and played with pretty good energy at the end."
That will have to sustain as WVU readies to play at Cincinnati, and then play host to Seton Hall (9-12, 3-6), which shockingly won at Syracuse, 90-68, on Tuesday.
"There are a lot of great coaches in this game and Bob Huggins is a part of the great coaches," said Louisville Coach Rick Pitino. "Very few coaches - and don't take this the wrong way about the talent, because they have good talent with the guys remaining - but take West Virginia out of the equation and Bob Huggins can coach seven guys named Harry and be competitive.
"That's not this team. This team is good. But you can give him anybody and he can coach and they're always going to be in the game."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.