Originally published March 19, 2010 at 01:33p.m., updated March 19, 2010 at 04:56p.m.
Buffalo, N.Y. The way West Virginia was missing one shot after another, the thought actually crossed forward Kevin Jones' mind whether the Mountaineers would ever hit a basket.
After missing their first 11 attempts, the second-seeded Mountaineers eventually found their range Friday — and have Jones to thank for leading the way.
The sophomore forward scored 13 of his game-high 17 points in the first half in helping West Virginia (28-6) roll to a 77-50 win over No. 15 seed Morgan State and avoid another Big East flameout in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
"We always let teams get off to those huge leads and let them get confidence and that's where it hurts us," Jones said. "I'm just glad we could come out and stomp on them and not let them back into the game."
Stomp they did.
Jones went 4-for-4 for nine points during a decisive 21-4 run over a 6-minute stretch in the first half. Devin Ebanks scored 16 and added 13 rebounds for the Mountaineers, who found another dimension to their offense after the Bears contained star guard Da'Sean Butler.
Reggie Holmes scored 12 points for Morgan State (27-10), the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference champ, which followed up its first tournament appearance last year with another bid this season. Kevin Thompson had eight rebounds and three blocks to go with nine points for the Bears.
The Big East champions advanced to the second round of the East Regional on Sunday. West Virginia will face the winner of the game between No. 7 seed Clemson and No. 10 Missouri, who played later Friday.
Despite the early scare, it proved to be a far better start to the day for the Big East, after the conference's teams struggled Thursday. Georgetown, Marquette and Notre Dame were all upset, while No. 2 seed Villanova survived a major challenge, needing overtime to beat Robert Morris 73-70.
"We're our own team," Butler said, when asked to reflect on the conference's sudden tournament troubles. "I just think we came out and didn't want to leave early. We wanted to take care of our own business."
The Bears were left to wonder how their solid start got away.
"Those damn 40-minute games," coach Todd Bozeman said, with a sly grin. "If we had 12 minutes, we would have won the game."
The Bears opened by hitting four of their first six attempts to build a 10-0 lead before the game was 5 minutes old. And their swarming defense did its part by shutting down Butler, who finished with nine points.
West Virginia trailed 12-3 before scoring its first field goal with 12:15 left, when Ebanks hit a hook shot from the paint. The basket sparked the Mountaineers back into the game, as they hit eight of their next 11 attempts and took the lead with 5:42 remaining in the half.
That's when Joe Mazzulla went coast-to-coast following Troy Smith's turnover and was fouled while scoring on a layup. Mazzulla completed the three-point play to put West Virginia ahead 22-21, a lead the Mountaineers never relinquished.
West Virginia didn't let up after halftime, eventually building a 70-36 lead with 6 minutes left in the game.
Butler is the Mountaineers' go-to player, having scored six game-winning baskets this season, including a running jumper with 4 seconds left that sealed a 60-58 win over Georgetown in the Big East title game Saturday. What impressed Butler is how his teammates were able to pick up the slack Friday.
That's something that didn't happen last year, when the Mountaineers were bounced from the tournament in the first round in a 68-60 overtime loss to 11th-seeded Dayton.
"We had a good team last year, but everybody was so young. I kind of felt I had to do a lot more," Butler said. "But this year I have a team. Everybody's mature. ... It's a lot easier for me to go out there and play."
The Bears' shooting fizzled, and they finished the game 18-of-61.
"We weren't frustrated," said Smith, who scored nine points for the Bears before fouling out. "The ball wasn't going in as much as it usually goes in for us. ... We just weren't hitting our shots."