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West Virginia waylays No. 17 Huskies in Puerto Rico title game

Scrambling for turnovers, confidently stroking shots and owning 50-50 balls, West Virginia threatened to blowout No. 17 Connecticut in the first half.

Yet the Mountaineers were most proud of their response later in the game when the defending national champions rallied.

With a 15-point margin sliced to six, West Virginia stabilized behind the steady hand of Juwan Staten and key plays by its less-heralded guards to complete a 78-68 upset in the championship of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off.

“I’ve got my kind of guys again, guys that are just going to keep swinging,” coach Bob Huggins said after the program’s first 5-0 start since the 2009-10 season, which culminated in a Final Four appearance. No one projected such a finish this year, though the Mountaineers won’t be underrated any longer after their three-game run through San Juan.

“We have a lot of confidence in ourselves and we just want to put this program back where it deserves to be.” — Mountaineers point guard Juwan Staten

Tournament MVP Staten scored 21 points while playing 37 minutes—most of that with West Virginia pressing. Despite being drained, he produced 10 points during a nine-minute stretch when his team rebuilt a six-point edge into a 72-59 cushion.

“It was time to put the ball in the guy’s hands who was supposed to have it,” Huggins said. “Near the end of the game, we called him over and asked him to keep the freakin’ ball.

“So we got the ball to Wannie and tried to spread it so he could get it at the basket. He did that and got fouled.”

BOXSCORE: West Virginia 78, UConn 68

Staten finished 9-of-12 at the foul line after attempting only four free throws in the previous two games.

Point guard Ryan Boatright scored 17 points but missed all four 3-point tries for UConn (3-1), which lost for the first time since the AAC tournament last March. The Huskies closed the game only 3-of-17 from deep, 9-of-18 from the foul line and committed 19 turnovers, nearly double their early season average. That became “a recipe for losing,” said Connecticut coach Kevin Ollie.

“(West Virginia) did a real good job pressuring us,” he said. “They challenge every dribble, every pass.”

Said Boatright, the former WVU commitment: “There is no excuse for having 19 turnovers—we are way better ballhandlers than that. They were denying me and Terrance (Samuel) the ball but there is absolutely no excuse for having 19 turnovers.”

Throughout a blazing first half, West Virginia dominated their former Big East rivals. Jonathan Holton led the energy brigade with 10 points, four rebounds, three assists and two steals in 11 minutes. He picked up his third foul immediately after halftime and didn’t score again until a punctuating dunk with 12 seconds left.

Likewise, Devin Williams scored all seven of his points in the first half when the Mountaineers built a 47-32 lead.

After that, the guards produced 25 of West Virginia’s 31 second-half points. Those included seven by Gary Browne and six by freshman Daxter Miles, a tandem that buried UConn’s comeback with back-to-back 3-pointers in a 26-second span for 70-56 lead.

Fellow freshman Jevon Carter, the star of West Virginia’s semifinal win over Boston College, had only one basket and five points Sunday. But his defense made Boatright uncomfortable and Carter finished with a team-high 11-point plus-minus.

“When you have a freshman off the bench like Jevon Carter and he comes into the game and tells me, ‘I’ve got Boatright.’ Well, when he says that, I’m like, ‘You got him,'” Huggins said. “He and Daxter make plays that normal freshmen don’t make.”

“(West Virginia) did a real good job pressuring us. They challenge every dribble, every pass. We had some bad turnovers.” — UConn coach Kevin Ollie

UConn showed off one of the nation’s marquee freshmen, Daniel Hamilton, who finished with 15 points, nine rebounds and three assists. He also contributed eight turnovers, erratically throwing away jump-passes against the press.

“Honestly, we kind of put the press in two days before our first game, but we have the right personnel to make it work,” said Staten, a senior who has yet to play in an NCAA tournament game.

“We have a lot of confidence in ourselves and we just want to put this program back where it deserves to be. We have a brand new team and a lot of new faces and … this is our first big test. UConn won it all last year and they came in ranked and with a huge reputation. So to knock them off was a great feeling.”

West Virginia faces VMI in Charleston on Wednesday night before hosting College of Charleston at the WVU Coliseum on Saturday.

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