West Virginia 63, Louisville 69
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP)—Rick Pitino doesn’t expect No. 7 Louisville to escape the Big East unscathed.
West Virginia almost made sure of it. Almost.
Jerry Smith scored a season-high 20 points and the Cardinals (17-3, 8-0) avoided a massive second-half collapse to hold off the Mountaineers 69-63 on Saturday and set up a showdown with No. 2 Connecticut.
“We’re at the halfway point and we’ve been through World War I, two, three, four and five,” Pitino said.
The Cardinals have survived every one so far. Yet the Mountaineers (15-6, 4-4) made Louisville work for their ninth straight victory by nearly rallying from a 20-point halftime deficit.
West Virginia got as close as four with 2:16 remaining before the Cardinals regrouped to cap a perfect January in which they rebounded from a so-so nonconference schedule that saw them lose three times.
Those days seem long ago, thanks in part to the kind of depth few teams can match.
While stars Earl Clark and Terrence Williams struggled against the Mountaineers, role players Smith and reserve center Terrence Jennings stepped up.
Smith snapped out of a shooting slump to go 4-of-5 on 3-pointers while Jennings—who has toiled in the shadow of more heralded freshman teammate Samarado Samuels—had 13 points, two blocks and two steals.
“That’s just how we play, we know anybody can step up at any time,” Jennings said. “We know that if it’s not going to be Earl or T-Will, it could be me or Jerry or someone else.”
Da’Sean Butler scored 19 of his 23 points in the second half, Alex Ruoff had 16 points and Devin Ebanks added 14 points and six rebounds for West Virginia.
“We talked and talked and talked about it being a 40-minute game, not a 30-minute game,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said. “Our margin for error is very small. We didn’t deal with their pressure very well in the first half.”
They did in the second, turning the tables on the Cardinals by refusing to panic.
Louisville had a season-high 26 turnovers and seemed to already be thinking about the Huskies as the West Virginia cut into the lead.
Ebanks hit a free throw to get within 63-59, but Samuels hit two free throws to push Louisville’s lead back to six. Butler, surrounded by Louisville guards Preston Knowles and Andre McGee, turned it over on West Virginia’s next possession.
The Cardinals gave it right back but John Flowers missed a 3-pointer for West Virginia and Williams followed with an emphatic dunk in the lane to help Louisville escape.
“We fall in love with ourselves too much,” Pitino said. “In the long run, it’s probably better we had a war down the stretch.”
It was a war that looked unlikely after a brilliant first half by the Cardinals, which deftly picked apart West Virginia’s aggressive man-to-man defense, beating the Mountaineers for backdoor layups or forcing turnovers to get on the break. West Virginia gave it away 14 times in the first half.
“We can’t throw the ball to them, they’re great athletes and they’re well coached,” Huggins said. “We didn’t do what we were supposed to do.”
Particularly in the final 12 minutes of the first half as buried the Mountaineers with a 40-15 blitz highlighted by the play of Smith and Jennings.
“That’s as good a half as we can play,” Pitino said.
Smith broke out by knocking down four 3-pointers in the first half and surpassed his previous season high of 16 points by the break. Jennings scored 10 points in seven energetic minutes. He dunked three times, hit a nifty reverse layup and made a couple of free throws—not bad for a player who came in shooting 32 percent from the line.
The Mountaineers, meanwhile, simply couldn’t get going. They went nine minutes without making a field goal as the Cardinals bottled up Ruoff and Butler. By the time Butler finally scored on a layup with 3:08 to go in the half, the Mountaineers already trailed by 16.
The lead grew to as much as 22 before the Mountaineers got it together. Still, it wasn’t enough to end Louisville’s streak, and Pitino hopes the lessons learned in the second half will pay off on Monday when the Huskies come to Freedom Hall.
“Keep (the ranked teams) coming,” Clark said. “We just need to keep playing hard and playing well.”