SYRACUSE, N.Y. - Clutching his right hand and writhing in pain on the court, West Virginia senior Da’Sean Butler allowed himself only two seconds to worry that his college career was over — and maybe the Mountaineers’ NCAA tournament run, too.
When Butler realized the hurt was subsiding, he got up and went about his business in lifting the second-seeded Mountaineers to the East Regional final with a 69-56 win over 11th-seeded Washington on Thursday night.
“Once I stood up, the one thing that was pretty numb was my hand, and I said, ‘All right, I’ll be fine,’ ” he said.
He was, and so were the Mountaineers (30-6). Coach Bob Huggins’ team set a school record for victories, extended its winning streak to nine and advanced to the round of eight for the second time since 2005.
Seeing Butler on the court, however, was a major scare for West Virginia, which was playing its first game without point guard Darryl Bryant, who broke his right foot in practice on Tuesday.
Butler plays an even more crucial role on the Mountaineers, as he’s their leading scorer who’s also hit six game-winning shots in the final seconds this season.
“That was a very big sense of relief,” forward Kevin Jones said. “Something would really have to be wrong if he didn’t get up. Luckily, it wasn’t that. He got up and showed how tough he was.”
Butler had his right hand wrapped in ice in the Mountaineers’ locker room and said he’ll be ready to play Saturday against top-seeded Kentucky, a 62-45 winner over Cornell.
Jones led the Big East tournament champions with 18 points and eight rebounds, while Butler finished with 14 points and seven rebounds.
Justin Holiday scored 14 and added eight rebounds for the Huskies (26-10), who were at a disadvantage after leading scorer Quincy Pondexter picked up his third foul with 4:27 left in the first half. Pondexter didn’t score his first basket until 2:30 into the second half, and finished with seven points.
Point guard Isaiah Thomas scored 13 before fouling out with 2:41 left. The Huskies had a nine-game win streak snapped. The Pac-10 tournament champions were trying to become only the fourth school seeded 11th or lower to reach the round of eight.
“It definitely hurts. We made a great run down the last stretch of the season,” Pondexter said. “It hurts right now. There’s nothing much to say about it.”
Butler getting up after being hurt proved to be the big turning point in what started as a tightly contested game that featured six lead changes.
With the Mountaineers up 52-43, Butler made a key defensive play by stripping Thomas. At the other end, West Virginia worked the ball to Butler at the top of the key, where he drew a foul as he attempted to spin around Holiday. The whistle was late, which incensed Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar, who ripped off his sport coat in anger as he marched up the sideline toward the officials, who gave the coach a technical.
Devin Ebanks and Butler combined to hit all four free throws to provide the Mountaineers their largest lead, 56-43.
Romar said his reaction for the most part was an attempt to spark his team which had opened the half missing 11 of its first 14 field goals — including an ugly possession in which the Huskies missed five shots from in close.
“All of a sudden, we kind of lost the sense of urgency, I thought,” Romar said. “I felt we had to nip that in the bud right away.”
It didn’t work as the Huskies proved no match for the Mountaineers’ aggressive approach. Washington finished 22 of 56 from the field and was outrebounded 49-29.
“It felt like it was eight against five out there,” Huskies forward Darnell Gant said.
Trailing by as many as six points late in the first half, the Mountaineers went ahead for good with 14:14 left in the second half, when Jones hit a 3-pointer to make it 39-37. That was part of an 11-1 spurt that was capped by Wellington Smith’s putback after Casey Mitchell missed a shot from the outside.
Despite the win, the Mountaineers weren’t happy with how they played. Part of the problem was not having Bryant, who plays a settling role in running the team’s half-court offense.
Ebanks and Butler shared the duties of getting the ball up court, but the Mountaineers at times lacked rhythm and were particularly sloppy in committing 13 turnovers in the first half alone — three more than they committed all game in a 68-59 win over Missouri on Sunday. They entered the game averaging only 11.6 turnovers.
“It was tremendously uncomfortable, especially this time of year,” Ebanks said. “Having our point guard out was a huge blow to us. We played kind of poorly in the first half.”
The Mountaineers improved to 11-0 at neutral sites this season and held their sixth straight opponent to under 59 points, a stretch that dates to their 54-51 win over Cincinnati to open the Big East tournament.
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