College Basketball Nation: 2011 NCAA Tigers-Mountaineers

TAMPA, Fla. -- Dalton Pepper wasn’t much of a defensive player during his first season at West Virginia in 2010.

A former Pennsylvania state high school player of the year, Pepper was really nothing more than a spot-up shooter during his first college season.

“Last year, I was probably the worst defender on the team,” Pepper said.

Tell that to the Clemson Tigers.

After Clemson cut West Virginia’s lead to 76-71 in the final two minutes of Thursday’s East Regional second-round game at St. Pete Times Forum, Pepper swiped the basketball from the Tigers on three consecutive possessions to seal an 84-76 victory.

Pepper, a sophomore reserve from Leavittown, Pa., converted his first two steals into a dunk and layup to make it 80-71. Mountaineers guard Truck Bryant was fouled after Pepper’s third steal, and Bryant made one of two foul shots for an 81-71 lead with 56 seconds to play.

“If we make a long run in the NCAA tournament, people are going to look back at Dalton as a hero,” West Virginia forward Cam Thoroughman said.

Pepper might be the most unlikely of heroes for the Mountaineers. He came into the game averaging 3.8 points and 1.5 rebounds and averaged 10.8 minutes in Big East games.

West Virginia forward Deniz Kilicli, from Istanbul, Turkey, has lived with Pepper for the last two years.

“The first two weeks, he didn’t say anything,” Kilicli said. “He’s definitely a quiet kid.”

But with the Mountaineers’ postseason lives on the line in the final minutes on Thursday, Pepper was standing at the top of West Virginia’s 1-3-1 zone, trying to disrupt the Tigers more than anything else.

“Mostly, we want to slow them down,” Pepper said. “I don’t think they were ready for it, and we just caught them off guard and got a few steals.”

Pepper swiped the basketball from Clemson guard Tanner Smith, and then took it from Demontez Stitt two more times.

“He’s perfect for the top of that 1-3-1 because of his length and athleticism,” West Virginia guard Joe Mazzulla said. “Once we got him to understand what that position is and how you’re supposed to play it, he almost played it to perfection today.”

West Virginia coach Bob Huggins didn't move Pepper to the top of the 1-3-1 until about three weeks ago.

“He was always playing on the wing before,” Huggins said. “We’re just trying to get him to stay between the ball and the next guy. I honestly didn’t even see what happened the first time. I was looking at what they were doing on the baseline, I wasn’t watching the ball. Those were big for us.”

It was a crushing blow for Clemson, which led by as many as 10 points in the first half, after defeating UAB 70-52 in a first-round game in Dayton, Ohio less than 48 hours earlier.

“We came out and were playing well at the beginning,” Clemson guard Andre Young said. “We hit them in the mouth and they came at us at the end of the first half. I think we had a lot of mental breakdowns here and there, and they ultimately cost us.”

The Tigers’ three big miscues in the final two minutes are what really hurt them.

“We could practice that defense 10 to 15 times in practice, and [Pepper] might get one steal,” Thoroughman said. “I’ve never seen him do that.”

Video: WVU's Cam Thoroughman

March, 17, 2011
3/17/11
4:13
PM ET

WVU's Cam Thoroughman talks about the win over Clemson.
TAMPA, Fla. -- Tired legs?

No. 12 seed Clemson came storming out of the locker room in its East Regional second-round game against No. 5 seed West Virginia, grabbing an early 10-point lead over the Mountaineers at St. Pete Times Forum on Thursday. The Tigers were playing for the second time in less than 48 hours, after defeating UAB 70-52 in a first-round game on Tuesday night.

But West Virginia stormed back to tie the game at 40 at the half, and then turned up its defensive intensity in the second half to pull away with an 84-76 victory.

Turning point: After West Virginia took a 76-71 lead on Joe Mazzulla's two foul shots with 1:43 to go, Mountaineers guard Dalton Pepper stole the basketball from the Tigers and scored layups on two straight possessions. The Mountaineers turned a four-point lead into an 80-71 advantage in only 23 seconds.

Player of the game: West Virginia forward Kevin Jones gave his team some much-needed momentum by knocking down a 3-pointer at the buzzer to tie the score at 40 heading into halftime. Jones, a junior from Mount Vernon, N.Y., scored 17 points on 6-for-11 shooting and grabbed nine rebounds.

Key stat: 80.6 percent: The Mountaineers made 25 of 31 foul shots and went 10-for-10 in the first half. West Virginia shot 70.6 percent from the foul line this season.

Miscellaneous: West Virginia guard Truck Bryant scored 19 points with three rebounds, and Mazzulla had 12 points with seven assists. Clemson guards Demontez Stitt and Andre Young combined for 38 points.

What’s next: West Virginia advances to play the winner of Thursday’s second-round game between No. 4 seed Kentucky and No. 13 seed Princeton on Saturday. The Mountaineers upset the Wildcats 73-66 in the Elite Eight last season. Clemson finished the season with a 22-12 record, a pretty good rookie campaign by coach Brad Brownell.
TAMPA, Fla. -- Even though teams like Kentucky, Michigan State and UCLA are located on opposite sides of the bracket, the Tampa pod at the St. Pete Times Forum has a distinct blue-blooded flavor.

The Bruins have won 11 national championships and played in the Final Four 18 times, more than any other program. The Wildcats are playing in their 51st NCAA tournament -- an NCAA record -- and have reached the Final Four 13 times.

The Spartans and Gators have enjoyed more success recently, with the Spartans making six Final Four trips under coach Tom Izzo and the Gators winning back-to-back national championships under coach Billy Donovan in 2006 and ’07.

West Virginia coach Bob Huggins guided the Mountaineers to the Final Four last season, after taking Cincinnati there in 1992.

“You know, these teams have great history, great historical programs,” UC Santa Barbara forward James Nunnally said. “But we’re all basketball, we’re all the same. We all lace up our shoes the same way. We all have to play. That’s how I feel about it.”

Here’s a closer look at early NCAA tournament action in Tampa:

No. 12 seed Clemson (22-11) vs. No. 5 seed West Virginia (20-11), 12:15 p.m. ET (CBS)

ABOUT THE TIGERS

Coach: Brad Brownell (189-96 in nine seasons, 22-11 in first season at Clemson)

Last NCAA tournament appearance: 2010

All-time NCAA record: 9-10 in 11 appearances

Player to watch: Clemson forward Jerai Grant has been one of the ACC’s most-improved players over the past couple of years. This season, he was named to the ACC’s all-defensive team and finished second on the team with 12.4 points and first with 6.7 rebounds. He also ranked among the country’s best shot blockers, averaging 2.4 blocks a game. In Clemson’s 70-52 victory over UAB in Tuesday’s NCAA first-round game, Grant scored a career-high 22 points on 10-for-15 shooting with seven rebounds.

ABOUT THE MOUNTAINEERS

Coach: Bob Huggins (690-252 in 29 seasons, 100-41 in four seasons at WVU)

Last NCAA tournament appearance: 2010

All-time NCAA record: 24-23 in 23 appearances

Player to watch: Guard Joe Mazzulla always seems to rise to the occasion in the NCAA tournament. As a sophomore, he nearly had a triple-double in a second-round upset of Duke in 2008, with 13 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists. Last season, Mazzulla scored 17 points in a 73-66 upset of Kentucky in the East Regional finals. Mazzulla is averaging 7.2 points and 3.9 rebounds this season.

THREE THINGS TO WATCH

1. Clemson’s legs: The Tigers didn’t arrive in Tampa until 4:30 a.m. ET on Wednesday, after beating UAB in an NCAA first-round game in Dayton, Ohio. The Tigers didn’t make it to their hotel until around 5:30 a.m. and players were allowed to sleep until around noon. There was a shoot-around and news conferences later in the day.

“It was difficult, but you know, it’s the NCAA tournament,” Brownell said. “It’s a tremendous opportunity, so I’m not talking about the negatives. “We’re going to be ready at 12:00 and we’re going to lace them up and be ready to go.”

2. Defense, defense, defense: It’s a matchup of two of the better defensive teams in the country. The Tigers rank No. 20 nationally in scoring defense, allowing only 60.9 points per game. The Mountaineers allow only 64.1 points per game and have won 42 of their previous 46 games when yielding 69 points or fewer.

3. Casey at bat: West Virginia senior Casey Mitchell has been in and out of Huggins’ dog house this season, but still leads the team with 14.1 points per game. Mitchell was suspended from the team on Jan. 24 and didn’t play in the next three games. He returned on Feb. 5 and has been inconsistent ever since. He scored 23 points in a loss at Syracuse and 22 points in a loss at Pitt, but also was held to 10 points or fewer in six of 10 games since coming back. Huggins said Mitchell had some of his best practices of the season this week.

No. 13 seed Princeton (25-6) vs. No. 4 seed Kentucky (25-8), 2:45 p.m. ET (CBS)

ABOUT THE TIGERS

Coach: Sydney Johnson (66-52 in four seasons)

Last NCAA tournament appearance: 2004

All-time NCAA record: 13-27 in 23 appearances

Player to watch: Senior forward Kareem Maddox plays off the bench, but leads the Tigers in scoring (13.9 points), rebounds (7.1) and blocked shots (56) in 31 minutes per game. He was the Ivy League defensive player of the year and scored 30 points in an 86-77 victory over Siena and 31 in an 82-78 win at Tulsa.

ABOUT THE WILDCATS

Coach: John Calipari (505-151 in 19 seasons overall, 60-11 in two seasons at Kentucky)

Last NCAA tournament appearance: 2010

All-time NCAA record: 101-45 in 51 appearances

Player to watch: Point guard Brandon Knight was named All-SEC and freshman All-America after leading the Wildcats in scoring (17.5 points) and assists (4.2). He has scored in double figures in 28 consecutive games and had 12 20-point games -- the most by a UK freshman. Knight is shooting 78.9 percent on foul shots and 38.7 percent on 3-pointers.

THREE THINGS TO WATCH

1. Kentucky guard Doron Lamb's ankle: Lamb, a freshman from Queens, N.Y., injured his ankle in Kentucky’s 72-58 victory over Alabama in the SEC tournament semifinals on Saturday. Lamb was able to play 23 minutes off the bench in UK’s 70-54 rout of Florida in the championship game, but went 2-for-6 from the floor, including 0-for-3 on 3-pointers.

“It hurt a little bit, but once the game started it was OK,” Lamb said Thursday. “After the game, it was killing me. But I got a lot of treatment and iced it, and I will be ready.”

2. Princeton’s offense: This isn’t your daddy’s Princeton offense. Once known for their methodical, half-court offense, which typically back-doored opponents to death, the Tigers are actually running up and down the floor. Johnson still employs elements of legendary coach Pete Carril’s offense, but these Tigers are averaging nearly 70 points per game.

“The players that we have, there’s a little bit more athleticism, they’re a bit more dynamic, and so we may not need three or four passes and a cut-through before they can get a shot,” Johnson said. “It might be as simple as a pick-and-roll. It might be a hard cut and just post-up at the basket and roll it into them.”

3. Kentucky’s freshmen: Knight and forward Terrence Jones, the SEC’s freshman of the year, are two of the country’s best rookies. But both freshmen looked a little overwhelmed playing in the first two games of the SEC tournament. Knight and Jones shot 30.4 percent, including 2-for-15 on 3-pointers, in victories over Ole Miss and Alabama in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome.

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