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CINCINNATI – West Virginia may be short on players but it is certainly long on heart. Seniors John Flowers and Joe Mazzulla scored 16 points each to lead the Mountaineers to a 66-55 victory over Cincinnati Saturday night before a sold-out Fifth Third Arena in Cincinnati.
West Virginia’s victory was a big one with Connecticut and Villanova both losing this afternoon. The Mountaineers are now in a three-way tie with the Huskies and Wildcats for fourth place in the Big East standings with 5-3 records, and they were one of four teams to win road games in conference play on Saturday.
“We’ll take it,” said West Virginia coach Bob Huggins. “We’ve got to get to 10-11 league wins. If we get to 10-11 we’re not just in the (NCAA) tournament, we’ve got a pretty good seed because we’ve played people outside the league. We’ve got to keep on going.”
Three of West Virginia’s five league wins have come on the road, where Huggins has now won 17 times since his return to West Virginia 3 ½ years ago. Huggins has matched Gale Catlett’s 17 road wins achieved from 1996-2002 for the most by a WVU coach since the Mountaineers joined the Big East in 1996.
Tonight, West Virginia was able to avoid the long scoring drought that has plagued it in previous losses to Marshall and Louisville by cashing in at the free throw line. The Mountaineers were 24 of 30 from the line compared to Cincinnati’s 5 of 11.
After trailing by six at halftime, 33-27, Cincinnati cut West Virginia’s lead to one, 42-41, with 11:24 remaining when Yancy Gates made one of two at the line. But the Mountaineers responded when Dalton Pepper was able to nail a wide open 3 from the corner, Mazzulla added two from the line and John Flowers hit another 3 with 8:52 to go to put West Virginia up by eight, 50-42.
The lead gradually swelled to 10 following a three-point play by Flowers, and then to 12 on a Mazzulla drive to the basket with 6:15 to go.
West Virginia’s biggest lead of the game was 14 points.
“We just said make them guard us,” Huggins explained. “We’ve got to make people sit down and guard us for an extended period of time and hopefully they break down. If you try to attack them initially, their size is just overwhelming.”
Cashmere Wright scored 24 points on 9-of-13 shooting for Cincinnati while his teammates managed to shoot just 13 of 47 against West Virginia’s defense. Overall, the Bearcats shot 35% (21 of 60), including only 27.6% from 3 (8 of 29). The Mountaineers came into tonight’s game limiting teams to just 27.8% from behind the arc and only 40.3% overall.
“I thought we did a great job of guarding,” said Huggins. “And we made plays. That’s about all you can say.”
This is the third straight game an opposing team has failed to shoot at least 40% from the floor against West Virginia and the ninth time this season the Mountaineers have kept their opponents below 40% shooting.
West Virginia also did an exceptional job on the glass, out-rebounding the Bearcats, 42-30, behind Kevin Jones’ nine rebounds and the eight pulled down by Flowers.
“How did we out-rebound them by 12?” said Huggins. “You look at them and you look at us, but we’ve competed. I thought there were so many hustle plays on our part.”
Mazzulla was two assists and three rebounds away from a triple-double, while going 10 of 12 from the free throw line. The senior is coming off a career high 18-point performance Wednesday night at Louisville.
“Joe did an unbelievable job,” said Huggins. “Joe Mazzulla was absolutely fantastic taking care of the ball and John Flowers was flying around again with four blocks.”
West Virginia shot 42.2% for the game after hitting half of its first-half field goal tries (12 of 24). For the second straight game Huggins used only two players off of his bench, getting 8 points from Deniz Kilicli and 6 from Pepper on a pair of 3s.
“I couldn’t be happier with the effort they’ve been giving us,” said Huggins of his small-but-effective bench. “Pep gets an opportunity again and he’s made the most of it. He got 22 minutes today and he made one huge 3-point shot for us and really gave us a little bit of breathing room.”
Gates, who has hurt West Virginia in the past, scored just 7 points and grabbed five rebounds in 26 minutes of action.
West Virginia snapped Cincinnati’s 13-game home winning streak and also won for the first time in the Queen City since 1941. It was Huggins’ first triumph at his former school since returning to West Virginia.
Cincinnati drops to 18-4, 5-4 with the loss. The Bearcats came into tonight’s game with the fourth-best scoring defense in the country allowing just 56 points per game.
West Virginia returns to the Coliseum to face Seton Hall Wednesday night in a 7 p.m. game that will be televised locally on the Big East Network. Tickets can be purchased online by logging onto WVUGAME.com
“It would be great to have a packed house like they had here tonight to kind of root us on,” said Huggins. “We need a lot of help.”