MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP)—West Virginia found No. 12 Connecticut’s weak spot— the road.
The Mountaineers made a shocking statement in the teams’ Big East opener Saturday by opening a double-digit lead early and cruising to an 81-71 victory over the previously unbeaten Huskies.
It was Connecticut’s first game outside the state this season.
“To jump into an environment like this, it was tough,” said Huskies guard Doug Wiggins.
Connecticut (11-1) ran into a West Virginia team that hadn’t lost at home, either, despite a revamped roster.
The Mountaineers (11-1) were supposed to be in a rebuilding mode after graduating their top four scorers and returning just six players from last season’s team that reached the third round of the NCAA tournament. Yet a young team that uses an unorthodox 1-3-1 zone defense leads the nation in the fewest points allowed at 49 per game.
“The 1-3-1 looked like a Rubik’s cube to us,” Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said. “We were impatient. We couldn’t make any 3-pointers. And when we got the ball in the paint, we didn’t finish plays.”
Connecticut was the Mountaineers’ first ranked opponent this season and didn’t play like one.
West Virginia beat Connecticut for the first time since Feb. 11, 1998, a span of seven games. The Mountaineers improved to 21-0 in December under coach John Beilein, who beat the Huskies for the first time in five tries.
“I wasn’t sure how we’d respond to that type of talent in our own building,” Beilein said. “The thing I was worried about the most was how we would hold our poise.”
The Mountaineers held it fine.
Connecticut led only in the game’s early minutes, trailed at halftime for the first time all season, shot poorly from everywhere and was held 12 points under its season scoring average.
West Virginia, one of the nation’s top outside shooting teams with 11 3-pointers per game, didn’t need its outside arsenal this time. Despite making only six 3s, the Mountaineers carried a double-digit lead over the game’s final 13 minutes.
West Virginia went five minutes between field goals early in the second half yet made 14 of 15 free throws in one stretch to put the game out of reach.
Calhoun was hit with a technical foul with 11 minutes left and Darris Nichols made two free throws to put West Virginia ahead 60-45.
Frank Young, who led West Virginia with 22 points, made a 3-pointer with 9:23 left to put the Mountaineers ahead 67-50.
“To start out 1-0 with a young team is good for our confidence and to keep the team positive going into league play,” Young said.
The Huskies allowed only 41 points in a win over Coppin State on Wednesday night, but West Virginia nearly eclipsed that in the first half.
An array of 3-pointers, fast-break opportunities and uncontested layups put the Mountaineers ahead 21-9 eight minutes into the game, the first time Connecticut had trailed by double digits this season. If not for Wiggins’ 10 points, the 38-31 halftime margin could have been much wider.
Connecticut shot 39 percent (26-of-66) from the field for the game and was just 13-of-27 from the free throw line.
Wiggins, a reserve, led Connecticut with 20 points, while Marcus Johnson added 16 and Jerome Dyson 12.
Da’Sean Butler added a career-high 16 points for West Virginia, while Nichols had 14 and Joe Alexander 12.