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.”
“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.”