CLEVELAND (AP)—West Virginia ended finals week with a failing grade from Professor Huggins.
Da’Sean Butler’s layup with 1.2 seconds left, after No. 6 West Virginia finally—and luckily—handled Cleveland State’s full-court press for the first time, gave the Mountaineers an 80-78 win over Cleveland State on Saturday that left West Virginia coach Bob Huggins in an icy mood.
Butler’s basket off an alert pass by Kevin Jones bailed out the Mountaineers (8-0), who had their flaws exposed by the Vikings (4-8).
“I’ve never had a team give up that many layups in 28 years of coaching,” Huggins said. “I have never coached a team that has that poor of help (defense). We are awful, just God awful.”
Jones scored a career-high 23 and Butler added 18 and nine rebounds for the Mountaineers, who did just enough against a bothersome 2-3 zone and Cleveland’s State’s zone press. West Virginia committed 11 of its season-high 17 turnovers in the second half, when the Vikings whittled down a 17-point lead and tied it 78-all with 13.7 seconds left on Jeremy Montgomery’s basket.
The undersized Vikings, trying to knock off their fourth ranked opponent in just over a year, brought one of the Big East’s big boys down to size with their press after halftime. They forced the Mountaineers into a mountain of mistakes: overthrows, underthrows and bad decisions.
“They’re big guys, like forwards,” said Cleveland’s State Norris Cole, who scored 29 points. “We knew they might be a little slow and we might be able to get up under them.”
On West Virginia’s final possession, Cleveland State had Butler bottled up after the inbounds pass. However, he managed to get the ball to point guard Darryl Bryant, who dribbled up the floor but was in trouble when two Vikings defenders swarmed him near mid-court.
Bryant nearly lost the ball and almost committed an over-and-back violation before finding Jones on the left wing. Jones then spotted Butler cutting to the hole and the senior forward dropped in his layup for the Mountaineers, who have their highest ranking in the AP poll since 1982.
But even after he made the game-winning shot, Butler wasn’t convinced West Virginia was safe.
“I thought there were like 15 seconds left,” he said. “But I looked up and it was only like 1.1 and they had to heave it. They made a lot of big shots. They don’t quit and they constantly keep coming after you. We didn’t take care of the ball and they took advantage of those opportunities.
“We got lucky.”
West Virginia’s last play wasn’t pretty, but it worked.
“That’s the way I drew it up,” Huggins joked.
Montgomery added 13 points for Cleveland State, which upset Syracuse (No. 11), Butler (No. 18) last season and shocked Wake Forest (No. 12) in the NCAA tournament.
Coach Gary Waters said there was a defensive breakdown that led to Butler’s basket as one of his substitutes lined up in the wrong spot.
“They were hollering at him,” Waters said. “Those things happen some time.”
With the win, Huggins moved into a tie with Gene Bartow for 23rd on the career wins list with 647. But Huggins wasn’t happy with his team’s performance.
After taking a long look at the boxscore after the game, Huggins was asked if he like anything on it.
“No, not really,” he said.
Huggins was particularly upset with his team’s defense and inability to break Cleveland State’s zone, something West Virginia knew was coming and worked on everyday in practice.
“I don’t know how many times you’re supposed to say get the ball up the sideline,” he said. “How many times you’re supposed to say get the ball and face the other basket. I don’t know how many times you’re supposed to say run through the ball. I don’t know how many drills you are supposed to do.”
The Mountaineers were playing their first “real” road game this season after four games in their home state and three in Anaheim, Calif. Huggins scoffed at the idea his kids were rattled by a Cleveland State crowd smelling upset.
“The five that we start all competed in the best conference in the history of college basketball last year,” he said. “We’ve played in hard places to play. We played in the Big East tournament. We played in the NCAA tournament. It’s not like they haven’t been here or know what’s coming.”
Waters believes West Virginia, with a deep bench and experience, has the makings of a Final Four team.
Huggins can’t imagine his team winning four more games. The Mountaineers have had their share of injuries—guard Casey Mitchell sat out and guard Joe Mazulla hurt his shoulder in the first half—and school exams cut into practice time this week. But it’s only December and there’s plenty of time to work out the kinks before March.
“We needed this,” Huggins said. “Hopefully this is an eye-opener. We’ll fix this.”