TAMPA, Fla. – West Virginia guard Dalton Pepper entered the NCAA tournament with six steals. He recorded half that total Thursday during a wondrous 28-second span that clinched West Virginia's 84-76 victory over Clemson at the St. Pete Times Forum.
In the process, Pepper, a 6-foot-5 sophomore, became the latest player to make the leap from obscurity to celebrity with one memorable NCAA tournament moment.
"Coach [Bob Huggins] always says if you listen and work hard, good things will happen," Pepper said. "I guess right now it's happening to me."
Pepper also made all four of his shots and matched a season-high with 10 points, but it was his defense that helped decide this game.
His teammates teased Pepper about his defensive deficiencies after the finest performance of his career. The jokes came when senior guard Joe Mazzulla was asked in a postgame news conference whether Pepper often played this kind of defense in practice.
"Actually, the total opposite," Mazzulla quipped. "When thing are going bad and we need a basket, we usually just attack Dalton."
Then he got serious.
"He's perfect for the top of that 1-3-1 [zone] because of his length and his athleticism," Mazzulla said. "Once we got him to understand what that position is and how you're supposed to play it, you know, he almost played it to perfection today."
Clemson (22-12) had made a frantic run down the stretch to cut a 12-point deficit to three. West Virginia (21-11) was still clinging to a 76-71 lead with less than two minutes left when the Mountaineers switched to the 1-3-1. And once the Mountaineers switched to that zone, Pepper entered a zone of his own.
Pepper stole an errant Tanner Smith pass at midcourt and made a layup to extend West Virginia's lead to seven. He stole the ball away on Clemson's next possession and again converted a layup to make it a nine-point game. Then came a third steal that led to a Darryl Bryant free throw.
In less than half a minute, Pepper had made himself an unlikely West Virginia folk hero.
Known primarily for his shooting ability, Pepper has spent his first two seasons at West Virginia trying to play the type of tenacious defense that would satisfy Huggins.
"Last year I was pretty much the worst defender on the team," Pepper said.
Now, for at least one day, he's the biggest man on campus.