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Alexander keys West Virginia's upset

Mar 13, 2008 - 10:53 PM NEW YORK (Ticker) -- Joe Alexander scored a career-high 34 points Thursday as West Virginia upset No. 15 Connecticut, 78-72, in the quarterfinals of the Big East Conference tournament.

Continuing his recent sizzling play, Alexander helped the Mountaineers (24-9) greatly improve their NCAA Tournament chances. West Virginia will face top seed Georgetown, an 82-63 winner over Villanova earlier Thursday, in Friday's semifinals.

Thursday was a dramatic improvement for Alexander, compared to his previous postseason contest at Madison Square Garden when he was held scoreless in last season's National Invitation Tournament championship game win against Clemson.

"The adjustment has come for me (being in) better shape," he said. "Lifting more throughout the season. I feel like I have my legs underneath me, as opposed to last year when I lost a lot at this point."

Connecticut (24-8) came into the Big East tournament having won 13 of its previous 15 games but the Huskies could not stop Alexander, who averaged just under 29 points in his previous four contests.

West Virginia erased a 29-24 deficit to open a 42-36 lead at halftime and maintained a double-figure advantage for most of the second half.

"He (Alexander) played terrific today," Huskies coach Jim Calhoun said. "But my team was not very good today. And, we didn't compete the way we need to compete to get 24 wins."

In addition to shooting 12-of-22 from the field, Alexander converted 10-of-12 free throws and grabbed six rebounds. He has done some of his greatest damage against the Huskies, scoring 32 points - his previous career best - in a 79-71 loss at Connecticut on March 1.

"I wanted him to do it the whole year," West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said. "I couldn't get him to cooperate. He's doing a much better job of reading the defense."

"The coach has got me to recognize that it's actually better to move slower on the court," Alexander added. "The number one difference is I just slowed down. In the past, I would grab the ball and try to move really fast and do everything in my repertoire."

While Connecticut has won six Big East tournament titles - second to Georgetown's seven - the Huskies have now lost their last four tournament games.

"We were unwilling for 40 minutes to put the kind of effort you need into a tournament game," Calhoun added. "Simple. Case closed. We go home."

Connecticut closed to 70-65 on Price's layup with 2:02 remaining, but Alexander put the finishing touches on the Mountaineers' win with a two-handed slam dunk that made it 75-65 with 1:01 left.

"We're a work in progress, but he's a hard guard," Huggins said. "He's not a post guy, he's not a perimeter guy. We have him out on the wing. He's out on the wing playing offense every day."

Price scored 22 points for the Huskies, who were hammered on the boards despite being the top rebounding team in the Big East during the regular season.

West Virginia outrebounded Connecticut, 42-26, including a 14-5 edge on the offensive end.

After Price's layup made it 70-65, Alexander missed a jumper but Da'Sean Butler grabbed a crucial rebound for West Virginia. Butler, who scored 17 points, hit two free throws on the same possession to give the Mountaineers a seven-point lead.

On the other end, Jerome Dyson drove to the basket but had his shot blocked by Wellington Smith. Darris Nichols hit 1-of-2 from the line before Alexander's dunk restored a 10-point cushion for West Virginia with 1:01 remaining.

While West Virginia never has won the Big East tournament, the Mountaineers enjoying playing at Madison Square Garden. They have 10 of their last 13 games here.