Jones jump-starts West Virginia, leads advance to Elite Eight

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SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- It's become an increasingly familiar sight these past few weeks, with West Virginia's run through the Big East tournament and now the first three rounds of the NCAAs. Every time one of Kevin Jones' three-pointers falls through the net, the Mountaineers sophomore takes a distinctive hop back down the court, fist-pumping his chest three times along the way.

He got to do it three times during West Virginia's 69-56 Sweet 16 win over 11th seed Washington on Thursday night, none more important than after his shot early in the second half to put the Mountaineers ahead 39-37 with 14:16 remaining.

For nearly 26 minutes, the two teams had been locked in a tight, borderline unwatchable turnover-fest, neither team able go find a flow offensively. Shortly after Jones trey, however, West Virginia went on a momentum-changing 8-0 run, during which time Jones made two more huge plays -- a monstrous block and another three-pointer.

By the time he was done, the Mountaineer with the white headband and perpetual grin had scored a team-high 18 points and grabbed a team-high eight rebounds to help West Virginia advance to the Elite Eight.

While senior star Da'Sean Butler is West Virginia's undisputed general, Jones' impact often gets overlooked. He averages 13.6 points, 7.2 boards and a whole bunch of energy.

"He's the quiet one," said teammate Devin Ebanks. "But he's definitely been the most consistent for us, scoring, rebounding and on the defensive end. We feed off his energy."

West Virginia leaned heavily on all of its Big Three -- Butler, Jones and Ebanks -- after an ugly first half that Ebanks described as tremendously uncomfortable.

Playing for the first time without starting point guard Truck Bryant, who broke his foot in practice Tuesday, West Virginia struggled mightily to move the ball in the first half. Coach Bob Huggins endured four turnovers and went through three different point guards (Casey Mitchell, Dalton Pepper and Joe Mazzulla) in the first four minutes alone.

The teams combined for a staggering 24 first-half turnovers, and Washington took a 29-27 lead to the break.

"In the first half, they got us playing fast-paced their way of playing basketball," said Jones. "In the second half, we kind of slowed it down and got into our offense."

No matter the state of its offense, West Virginia's constant all season has been its suffocating defense. The Huskies felt the brunt of it in the second half, especially after Huggins switched to a 1-3-1 zone, and shot just 31 percent. They also found out just how tough it is to grab a rebound away from the Mountaineers, who finished with a commanding 49-29 edge on the glass, including 23 offensive rebounds.

"Sometimes our best chance of making a shot," said Butler, "is missing one first."

During a break in the action late in the second half, just as West Virginia was starting to build a comfortable lead, the Carrier Dome p.a. announcer somberly announced the shocking score that would sink the hearts of many locals in attendance: Butler 63, Syracuse 59.

As of that moment, the Mountaineers were all that remained of the tourney-high eight Big East teams that once littered this year's NCAA bracket. That might have seemed implausible early in the season, back when Syracuse was being anointed as a national-title favorite, Villanova was nipping at its heels and Georgetown was doing its now-annual tease, while West Virginia was just trying to survive against Cleveland State and engineering furious rallies from huge deficits against Ohio State and Louisville.

Asked about his team's status as the last remaining Big East entrant, Huggins shook his head in apathy. "We want to be the last one standing, period."

To do it, he'll likely need some more late-game Butler heroics at some point. And he'll need his guys to keep working on bringing the ball up court. But he'll be able to count on at least one every-night fixture: Jones.

"I play with so much emotion," he said in explaining his trademark chest-thump. "I just want to get my teammates hyped and the crowd hyped. I guess they're used to it by now."

They'll still gladly take it.