SYRACUSE - It's been a rough NCAA Tournament for the top seeds as Syracuse bit the dust last night in the West Regional. That left West Virginia as the last Big East team standing after the Mountaineers simply out-toughed Washington, 69-56, in the East Regional semifinals at the Carrier Dome. West Virginia faces the winner of the late game between Kentucky and Cornell Saturday night for a berth in the Final Four.
Asked how it feels to be the last Big East survivor in the tournament, West Virginia coach Bob Huggins shrugged and said, "We want to be the last one standing, period.''
It was a knockdown, drag-out kind of game with both teams playing tough defense around the basket, but West Virginia (30-6) took only its second lead of the game when Kevin Jones hit a three-pointer for a 39-38 advantage with 14:14 left in the second half. That triggered an 11-1 Mountaineers run for a 47-39 lead.
At one point in that stretch, Washington coach Lorenzo Romar slammed a clipboard on the floor in a huddle and got into his team. You could see him approaching his boiling point later when the Mountaineers' Da'Sean Butler went down hard and was given time to recover, though West Virginia never summoned a trainer.
Seconds after that play, Romar blew his stack when a foul sent Butler to the line. Romar ripped off his jacket and was hit with a technical. Devin Ebanks made both technical free throws, and Butler added two more foul shots for a 56-43 advantage with 8:11 to play. Washington never really threatened the rest of the way
WVU's trio of Jones, Butler and Ebanks outscored Washington by themselves in the second half, 33-27. For the game, Jones had 18 points, Butler 14 and Ebanks 12. He also had eight of the Mountaineers' 23 turnovers without injured point guard Darryl Bryant.
Justin Holiday led Washington (26-10) with 14 points, but Pac-10 player of the year Quincy Pondexter got in early foul trouble and scored only seven points in 27 minutes.
Lacking a point presence without Bryant, who fractured his right foot in practice on Monday, West Virginia coach Bob Huggins started backup guard Casey Mitchell but used forward Butler to actually play point guard. It looked good on the first possession when Butler dished and took a return alley-oop pass from Ebanks to score at the rim.
But soon WVU began turning over the ball at a terrible rate, losing it 13 times in the first half. "Yeah, it was a struggle,'' Butler said. "I hate bringing the ball up. We did a poor job. We were taking the ball side to side instead of advancing it."
WVU improved in that department in the second half, and its physical play took a toll on the Huskies. The Mountaineers had 23 offensive rebounds that led to a 17-0 advantage in second-chance points. "I've said before,'' Butler quipped, "our best chance of making a shot is to miss the first.''