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Huggins: Team is playing for state of W.Va.

HARTFORD, Conn. -- West Virginia plays No. 8 Connecticut here tonight. The Mountaineers never have beaten the Huskies at the XL Center or at their Storrs campus.

Even current players insist, however, that playing at UConn has meant something.

The ones who played and coached in it remember the last game played here against UConn. It was 2010 and the Mountaineers lost in the XL Center, but made a meaningful chance afterward.

"We were undefeated the rest of the year until we lost to Duke," said senior Kevin Jones, who was a sophomore in that 73-62 loss to the Huskies.

The Mountaineers won the final three games of the regular season, all three of their games in the Big East Conference tournament to win that championship and then four straight in the NCAA Tournament before losing to the Blue Devils in the Final Four.

The game itself didn't do anything to inspire a 10-game winning streak. The Mountaineers trailed early, rallied late and eventually faded once things got close. Coach Bob Huggins was ejected late in the second half and used that spare time in the locker room to prepare a postgame speech.

"It's like the Gettysburg Address in West Virginia now," Huggins said Saturday after the Mountaineers beat No. 9 Georgetown, 74-62, and ended the Hoyas' 11-game winning streak. It was Huggins' 20th win at WVU against a ranked team.

Huggins explained after the loss at UConn that he'd challenged his team to understand the role it plays in the lives of those who root for the Mountaineers.

"I don't know if they know what they mean to this state," he said. "I told them in there, 'You have a chance to be special.' This club may have, could have, should have - very few people have a chance to be special, particularly in West Virginia.

"Pittsburgh had great basketball, but it was not the Steelers. Cincinnati had great basketball when I was there, but it was not the Reds. We have a chance to represent this state and bring so much pride and joy."

Just as sure Huggins was he had a dynamic team that season, he knew he'd opened their minds and hearts when he left that locker room.

"I did," he said Saturday. "It's such a grind, but we really had a chance to beat Connecticut until the end. I thought it was important that they hear that. I thought it was important that they understand."

At first, the players weren't so sure what had happened. To them, it was another one of the coach's speeches, though they noted this one was calmer and packed with more passion.

As they started to win games, clinch a bye in the Big East tournament and finish the regular season 24-6 and ranked No. 10, their fans grew anxious about the postseason and what WVU might accomplish. The Mountaineers grew to see see what Huggins meant.

"It was definitely a special moment," said Jones, who with Truck Bryant and Deniz Kilicli are the only current players who played in that game.

"We didn't know it at the time, but looking back on it now, that moment was really pivotal toward our success the rest of the year. You don't want to come out and repeat the same mistakes anymore."

Huggins doesn't have to give the speech, or some variation, these days. Jones, Bryant and Kilicli protect the image they helped to craft. They make sure the younger players understand what they were once made to understand.

"When you have a bunch of young guys, they can kind of get bored of you talking to them over and over about the same things," Jones said. "But when me and Truck come in and express to them what these Big East games mean, I think they get it a little better."

The Huskies (12-3, 2-2 Big East) are the 49th ranked opponent Huggins has faced in his five seasons at WVU. This one comes 55 hours after the tip against the 22nd game and seventh win against at top-10 team.

Success in the league requires a special focus and sometimes a reminder from the guy in charge.

"The thing about it is you have so many opportunities," Huggins said. "In some leagues, you might get one a year. In this league, you have them seemingly every night out. And the ones not in the top 25 probably ought to be. We lost to Seton Hall (14-2). If Seton Hall's not a top 25-team after what they've done, I don't know who is.

"We just get so many chances in this league. You can't get down and you can't too up. You've got to maintain an even keel."

The Huskies, who beat Wagner, Florida State, Harvard and Arkansas in non-conference play, have lost two in a tow in the Big East. They were beaten Tuesday by Seton Hall and lost 67-60 Saturday at Rutgers.

UConn is No. 7 in the RPI and ranked seventh in RPI strength of schedule. The huskies are led by sophomores Jeremy Lamb (18.9 pointer per game) and Shabazz Napier (14.1).

The Mountaineers rebounded from their Seton Hall loss with a 21-point win at Rutgers and a fifth straight win against Georgetown, each time with the Hoyas ranked. WVU is No. 15 in the RPI with the nation's seventh-hardest schedule.

"We've been up and down sometimes and we've got to get more consistent, but when we play like this, I think we're very tough to beat," Jones said. "I think we can beat anybody in the country if we give the same amount of effort and play like this.

"We're to the point now where we've got to keep moving forward and getting better."


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