Wednesday shaped up as a big day at Madison Square Garden, as four of the eight teams in action were looking to boost their respective NCAA tournament resumes. Two of the four teams, Connecticut and West Virginia, kicked things off in a tight contest that neither team led by more than eleven points (WVU). And while there were plenty of head-scratching decisions made down the stretch by both teams, Jim Calhoun's Huskies were the ones best able to navigate those issues, winning 71-67 in overtime to advance to Thursday's quarterfinals.
UConn gets the ultimate "signature win" opportunity as they take on a Syracuse games that's lost just one game this season and beaten the Huskies twice. Shabazz Napier led the way for the Huskies with 26 points, six assists and four rebounds, eventually fouling out early in overtime after waiting too long and ending up having to force a challenged three at the end of regulation. But his decision-making issues were trumped by West Virginia guard Truck Bryant, who forced some really bad shots down the stretch as the Mountaineers sputtered offensively.
"When coach asked us to run a play, we have to execute it as well as possible, and I don't think we do a good job of that," said Kevin Jones, who finished with 25 points and ten rebounds. "Also, we don't do a good job of staying strong with the ball. We let people take the ball from us, and it's kind of a matter of getting out?toughed the last five minutes."
Turnovers were one issue, but the biggest was the fact that WVU failed to get the ball to Jones down the stretch. The senior from nearby Mount Vernon, NY, who many claimed should have been Big East Player of the Year, attempted a shot with 7:16 remaining in regulation and didn't take another until he missed a three with 1:30 to go...in overtime. Some of the credit can be given to Andre Drummond, whose performance on the defensive end improved greatly in the second half, but the overwhelming feeling is that WVU didn't execute well enough to get Jones the ball.
The Mountaineers squandered a dominant effort on the glass, as they grabbed 26 offensive boards and out-rebounded UConn 47-31 on the afternoon. But those issues executing, with the guards as a whole struggling to get the ball where it needed to go, along with Jeremy Lamb waking up with Napier finished to knock down a key three-pointer with 1:05 remaining in overtime, proved costly. WVU played a good non-conference schedule and that's something the selection committee tends to reward, so the Mountaineers will likely end up in the Big Dance.
It's not so cut and dry at this point for Seton Hall, with the Pirates now turning into spectators following their 61-55 loss to Louisville. Kevin Willard's Pirates approach Selection Sunday having lost four of their last six games, and was a struggle offensively against the Cardinals. Point guard Jordan Theodore finished with a team-high 17 points but just two assists, with the first not coming until nine minutes remaining in the game. Have the Pirates done enough to be a part of the field? It's going to be a stressful couple of days for Seton Hall, who hope that their high strength of schedule can push them through.
USF completed the night with a 56-47 win over Villanova, and the key at this point for Stan Heath's Bulls is to simply keep winning. Freshman point guard Anthony Collins led the way with 17 points and four assists in what was an ugly game offensively, and a third win over the Wildcats won't do a whole lot for their resume. But to get a matchup with Notre Dame is a great opportunity for the Bulls, who with a win on Thursday night would make their first-ever semifinal appearance. The simplest thing for a bubble team to do at this time of the season is to make sure they live to fight another day. Connecticut and USF did just that on Wednesday.
Three Notable Performances
1. C Mike Muscala (Bucknell) and G C.J. McCollum (Lehigh)
Muscala accounted for 30 points, 14 rebounds, four assists and three blocked shots in the Bison's 82-77 loss to Lehigh in the Patriot League final. McCollum led the Mountain Hawks with 29 points, five assists, three rebounds and three steals.
2. G Damian Lillard (Weber State) and F Mathias Ward (Montana)
Lillard finished with 29 points, ten rebounds and seven assists in the Wildcats' 85-66 loss to Montana in the Big Sky final. Ward led the Grizzlies with 23 points, knocking down ten of his sixteen shots from the field to go along with eight rebounds.
3. F Rian Pearson (Toledo)
20 points and 15 rebounds in the Rockets' 75-72 win over Northern Illinois.