Alexander’s 34 lead W. Virginia to 78-72 victory over No. 15 Connecticut in Big East quarters
NEW YORK (AP)—One year has made a remarkable difference for Joe Alexander and West Virginia.
Last March, Alexander didn’t score a point as the Mountaineers beat Clemson in the NIT championship game.
On Thursday, the 6-foot-8 junior forward scored a career-high 34 points on the same Madison Square Garden court as West Virginia beat No. 15 Connecticut, 78-72, in the quarterfinals of the Big East tournament.
The fifth-seeded Mountaineers (25-7) will play top-seeded and ninth-ranked Georgetown in the semifinals Friday night. It will be West Virginia’s second appearance in the tournament’s final four as it lost in the 2005 championship game.
The coach of that team was John Beilein. Bob Huggins has gotten the Mountaineers that far in his first season at his alma mater, and Alexander has been the key to the season-closing run that had almost assured them of at least an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament.
“The adjustment has come for me. I’m in better shape physically, lifting more throughout the entire season,” he said. “I feel like I have my legs underneath me as opposed to last year when I lost a lot of weight at this point.”
All he’s been losing lately are defenders.
Alexander is averaging 29.8 points over his last five games, a streak that started with a then-career high 32 points in a 79-71 loss to Connecticut on March 1. He had 22 points in the Mountaineers’ opening-round win over Providence.
“I wanted him to do it the whole year. I couldn’t get him to cooperate,” Huggins said of the late run that has lifted Alexander’s season average to almost 17 points a game. “He’s slowed down. He’s doing a much better job of reading the defense. He’s such a hard matchup.”
Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun found it hard to believe Alexander torched his team for the second time in less than two weeks.
“Alexander is a terrific player. Our kids feel after he gets it they were going to stop him,” Calhoun said. “When he got around 27 or 28 I thought it would be a good idea if they realized that, by the way, he had 32 the first time, before the realized he was a good basketball player.”
A.J. Price had 22 points for the Huskies (24-8), who have lost their last four games in the Big East tournament, a streak that started with a loss in the semifinals in 2005.
Huggins, who was out of coaching in 2005-06 after 14 straight NCAA appearances with Cincinnati, led Kansas State to the NIT last year in his only season there.
“They’ve been good,” Huggins said of his current team. “All you ask is that guys come in every day and they listen and they work and for the most part these guys have done that.”
Alexander was 12-for-22 from the field and 10-for-12 from the free throw line as West Virginia led throughout the second half. The Mountaineers’ biggest lead was 13 points, the last time at 61-48 with 9:18 left, and they held off a run that had the Huskies as close as 70-65 on a driving layup by Price with 2:02 to play.
West Virginia had come up with four offensive rebounds in the three possessions before and the one after that basket to take the wind out of the Huskies’ comeback.
Da’Sean Butler made two free throws with 1:27 left to give West Virginia a 72-65 lead and Darris Nichols made one of two 11 seconds later to make it a six-point game. Alexander’s breakaway dunk with 1:01 left got the lead back to 10 points. He added another dunk with 14 seconds left that gave him his career high and sent the West Virginia fans into a big celebration.
Butler had 17 points and nine rebounds to lead West Virginia’s impressive showing on the boards. The Mountaineers finished with a 42-26 advantage, including 14-5 on the offensive end.
“Some games are very complex and you mull over them, why you won and why lost, it’s difficult,” said Calhoun, whose team had won 13 of its last 16 games. “This one is very easy. They came out and kicked our butt.
“When we were coming back we couldn’t get a defensive rebound to get us going. … Simple. Case closed. We go home. My team was not very good today. … It’s more than disappointing at this time of year that you’re not going to compete.”