Pepper Steals The Show
Sophomore Dalton Pepper was having another one of those non-descript games that often find him getting constructive criticism from his coach Bob Huggins. At one point midway through the first half when West Virginia was searching for anyone to put the ball in the basket, Pepper got stripped by Clemson’s Andre Young and wound up making a foul at the other end of the floor.
And at halftime he had a pair of free throws and a couple of rebounds to show for his effort – pretty non-descript, indeed.
But late in the second half, when West Virginia was leaking oil and a double-digit lead had been whittled to three with 1:49 remaining, it was Pepper who came to the rescue.
West Virginia, leading by five after two Joe Mazzulla free throws and in its 1-3-1 defense designed to steal time off the clock, not only took time off the clock, but also the ball from the Tigers. And it was Pepper doing all the taking. He caused not one, not two, but three straight turnovers, leading to a pair of baskets to give the Mountaineers enough breathing room to advance to the second round of the NCAA tournament for the fifth time in the last seven years.
Pepper scored both buckets to put West Virginia ahead by nine, 80-71, and a third Pepper steal led to a Truck Bryant free throw with 56 seconds to go and to give the Mountaineers a 10-point lead.
“We were just switching up on defense and I think it got in their head a little bit and they didn’t really know how to play their offense,” said Pepper. “We just got into the passing lane and denied the ball and I was just hoping I made the two shots I shot.”
“When you go 1-3-1 late it takes more time to get a good shot, and we just wanted to burn some clock,” explained Huggins. “I’ve been kind of talking to Pep and he’s never played on the top until three weeks ago, maybe.
“He was always playing on the wing before and we’re just trying to get him to stay between the ball and the next guy,” Huggins continued. “I honestly didn’t see what happened the first time – I was looking at what they were doing on the baseline instead of watching the ball. Those (steals) were big, kind of what Devin (Ebanks) did a year ago for us.”
Bryant, who scored a team-high 19 points, kept West Virginia in the game in the first half when the Mountaineers were struggling to run offense.
Clemson (22-12) took an early 10-point lead at 18-8, and led 39-29 with 2:46 left in the first half. Bryant had 8 of West Virginia’s first 15 points before the Mountaineers finally caught fire late in the half.
“They were doing a good job of pushing us. We started our offense basically at half court, and we couldn’t really pound people in our half court offense,” said Kevin Jones.
“We had to run some things to alleviate some of their ball pressure,” added Huggins. “I think we had guys where we wanted them, but we just couldn’t get them the ball because of their ball pressure, and that’s good coaching (on Clemson’s part).”
A pair of Deniz Kilicli layups, one coming off a pretty baseline feed from Pepper, and four straight points from Mazzulla trimmed Clemson’s lead to three, 40-37, with 54 seconds left in the first half.
Then Devin Booker’s wild shot attempt with 32 seconds left gave the Mountaineers a chance to run down the clock to try and tie the game at halftime. Mazzulla was able to draw in the defense and kick the ball out to 6-foot-8 forward Kevin Jones at the top of the key, where he was able to knock down his third 3 of the first half just ahead of the horn.
“(Jones) is more of a pick-and-pop guy than a pick-and-roll guy, so we picked and popped more than we picked and rolled,” said Huggins.
It was also Jones who gave West Virginia its first lead of the game 53 seconds into the second half when he put back Bryant’s missed layup try.
“I think (the 3-point field goal) gave us a lot of momentum going into the second half where we were down basically the whole first half, and it gave us a lot of confidence coming out of that locker room,” said Jones.
Jones finished the game with 17 points and a game-high nine rebounds.
Clemson missed 13 of 16 shot attempts during a stretch of time between the first and second halves when the Mountaineers were able to build a double-digit lead with 11:39 remaining. WVU’s biggest lead was 12, 59-47, with 11:16 to go after Pepper followed Mazzulla’s missed layup.
West Virginia (21-11) got 28 points from its bench - 11 from Kilicli and 10 from Pepper. Mazzulla finished the game with 12 points and seven assists, while going 10 of 12 from the free throw line.
Five Mountaineers scored in double figures today, marking the fifth time this season (Providence, DePaul, Davidson and Oakland).
At one point, West Virginia had a double-digit advantage on the glass, but that was eventually reduced to six, 37-31. The Mountaineers shot 49.1% from the floor against a Tiger defense ranked 20th in the nation in field goal defense. West Virginia was also 25 of 31 from the line.
“We made some shots finally,” said Huggins.
Clemson finished the game shooting 43.1% overall while going just 5 of 21 from 3-point distance. The Tigers’ 40 first-half points were the most West Virginia has allowed this season.
“I told (assistant coach) Larry (Harrison) coming in, ‘We’ve got to hold them to less than 40 in the second half or we can’t win,’” said Huggins. “I thought we did a better job initially defensively.”
Young led the Tigers with 22 points; Demontez Stitt scored 16 and Jerai Grant added 13 points - 11 of those coming in the first half, mostly on lobs down in the blocks.
The Mountaineers will face the winner of this afternoon’s Princeton-Kentucky game on Saturday afternoon.
Dalton Pepper, NCAA tournament
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