Mountaineers upbeat despite Bryant’s broken foot
AP Sports Writer
SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) – West Virginia’s Da’Sean Butler already was settled in his seat preparing for the news conference to begin while teammate Darryl Bryant – with his broken right foot – still was hobbling up the stairs of the riser.
“Hurry up,” Butler yelled out with a playful smile to emphasize he was kidding.
“I’m trying,” Bryant said, laughing as he carried his crutches and hopped to his seat on one foot Wednesday, a day after hearing something pop in his foot during practice.
Evidently nothing – not even the sudden news of losing their starting point guard – seemed capable of penetrating the seemingly unflappable upbeat mood of the second-seeded Mountaineers (29-6) a day before they faced the upstart 11th-seeded Washington Huskies (26-9) in the East Regional semifinal.
“I don’t see where the whole panic about everything will be. I think we’ll be fine,” Butler said. “We’ll continue to smile and be loose and enjoy ourselves because this is, well, wow.”
The Big East champions had reason to be confident. Following a 68-59 win over Missouri on Sunday, West Virginia was on an eight-game winning streak and led by a shutdown defense that held each of its past five opponents to under 60 points. They feature a clutch senior in Butler, who has made six game-winning shots this season and proved unstoppable in scoring 28 against Missouri.
And though Bryant’s loss depletes West Virginia’s depth at the position, the team has a capable backup in Joe Mazzulla. The junior already was playing an expanded role, averaging 5.5 points and 3.75 assists and nearly 25 minutes in his past four games.
All that will be tested against the Huskies, on an impressive roll of their own since discovering their up-tempo identity. En route to claiming only their second Pac-10 tournament title, the Huskies have won 14 of 16, including nine in a row. They opened the NCAA tournament with an 80-78 win over sixth-seeded Marquette and followed with a 82-64 rout of No. 3 New Mexico.
“Throughout this run, I think we have gained a lot of confidence because we’re starting to see us playing right,” senior forward Quincy Pondexter said. “It just gets you anxious to play the next game and continue for it to go on.”
In registering their fourth 25-win season in eight years under coach Lorenzo Romar, the Huskies have rebounded from a terrible start, in which they lost their first seven away from home and then got off to a 3-5 start in conference play.
“Well, I think for one, we’ve matured,” Romar said of Washington’s turnaround. “The question for me was how long was this going to take? Because we were running out of time.”
One question is how the Huskies will handle playing in the east. They spent the first two rounds of the tournament at San Jose and have played only one game – a 99-92 overtime loss at Texas Teach on Dec. 3 – outside the Pacific time zone this season.
Washington features an opportunistic, high-tempo attack averaging 79.9 points, 11th in the nation. It is led by the one-two of Pondexter, averaging 19.7 points, and sophomore guard Isaiah Thomas (17.1).
The Huskies have struggled defensively, giving up an average 70 points, which ranks 215th in the country.
Washington is attempting to advance to the round of eight for the first time since reaching the Final Four in 1953. The Mountaineers are seeking to reach the regional finals for the second time since 2005, when they squandered a 13-point halftime lead in a 93-85 overtime loss to Louisville.
The game will be a test of styles. The Mountaineers use a patient half-court approach to slow the tempo, while the Huskies like to run the floor.
That doesn’t concern West Virginia, which effectively neutered Missouri’s frenetic style in Buffalo last weekend.
“There’s not a whole lot that people can throw at us that we haven’t seen before,” Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins said. “We guard everything from the Princeton offense to people trying to score 100 points a game. So I don’t see that as being an issue.”