TAMPA, Fla. -- On a day where surprising results and unpredictable moments have become the norm, here is one thing you can go ahead and mark it down: If a Bob Huggins team scores 84 points in a NCAA tournament game, while getting three steals in the final two minutes from the wonderfully named Dalton Pepper, then they are simply not going to lose.
|Dalton Pepper comes up with three huge defensive playes for West Virginia in the final minutes. (Getty Images)|
The Mountaineers showcased their best ball movement of the season, leading to five players in double figures. The usual suspects all contributed, with Darryl "Truck" Bryant finishing with 19 points and Kevin Jones adding 17, including three crucial 3-pointers. But some unlikely stars got into the act, including Deniz Kilicli, who had 11, and the virtual unknown Dalton Pepper, who became the star of the game.
If you don't know Pepper's name, it is because he is a sophomore reserve guard who saw his minutes decrease as Huggins tightened his team's rotation over the final month of the season. During the team's previous six games, Pepper only played double-digit minutes once, and his biggest contribution had been mostly as a time-filler to give the starters rest. But from that forgotten role, he catapulted to a hero Thursday, with 10 points and the three biggest steals of his life.
After a late Clemson rally cut an 11-point West Virginia lead to three with 1:49 left, Huggins made the decision to change his defense back to a 1-3-1 zone, Pepper at the top. With Pepper's long arms, Huggins hoped to distract the Clemson guards and run clock over the final two minutes. Instead, Pepper shocked everyone, including his coach, by stealing the ball on three consecutive plays just as Clemson brought the ball across halfcourt. Pepper converted two of those steals into layups and the sequence, combined with a questionable foul call just before it, sealed the victory for West Virginia.
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After the game, Pepper's teammates acknowledged how surreal it was to see three steals in under a minute from a player who had only gotten six the entire season. Joe Mazzulla was asked if he expected Pepper to make a key defensive play, and he said with affection, "actually the total opposite. When practice is bad and we need a basket, we just attack Dalton to get a basket." As his teammates laughed, Pepper smiled and shrugged, acknowledging the truth in his teammate's quip.
Pepper's surprising steals were par for the course for a day in which even Huggins acknowledged, "We played really well." A team built on defensive intensity and toughness became a team that hit shots from deep and played with an offensive efficiency that Mountaineers fans rarely saw this year.
Huggins noted that when the game was tied at 40 at halftime, he looked at one of his assistants and said, "We have to play better defense, because there is no way we will score 40 in the second half." And they didn't. They executed even better than Huggins could have imagined and scored 44. It was a tremendous showing that left even Huggins with little to complain about.
It is easy to make broad generalizations after one NCAA tournament game, and usually those generalizations turn out to be incorrect. But on a day where upsets and buzzer-beaters seem to be the norm, one team played at a higher level than we have seen throughout most of the season and looked built to be very dangerous in the later rounds. Every Bob Huggins team will play defense. Every Bob Huggins team will be well-coached. But if a Bob Huggins team can shoot nearly 50 percent from the field and play as well offensively as West Virginia did on Thursday vs. Clemson, well, that team is one that can play with any team in the field.