"This one felt really good," said WVU junior guard Patrick Beilein, "especially since they smoked us here my freshman year (a 73-50 decision in 2003) and ended our season. This was a payback. We ended their season, and we are moving on."
It didn't take long for it to become clear that the Mountaineers had come to play. Even in front of a sparse afternoon crowd in New York's Madison Square Garden, West Virginia came out of the gate with some intensity, opening up a 13-4 advantage on the strength of 11 points from junior center Kevin Pittsnogle in just five minutes of action.
"I just felt good coming out," said Pittsnogle. "I hit a few early, and when I hit early, I start getting a good rhythm that lasts throughout the game. When I am hitting, I only need a little bit of space to get my shot off and make it."
The Mountaineers built off of Pittsnogle's early heroics, and even with the Martinsburg native getting a breather on the bench, the No. 8 seeded West Virginia squad extended its early lead to 19. Some aggressive defensive play by Mike Gansey led to some easy buckets and WVU's mix of 1-3-1 and man-to-man defense kept the Friars from getting into any rhythm on offense.
"When our (1-3-1) is working and I can come out and get a couple of steals early in the game, that is what gives me my confidence," said Gansey. "Our zone is what sets us apart, and if we start off well with that, a lot of teams have trouble. This was my first time being in The Garden, and that was all the motivation I needed. When we are playing together and making shots, it is just so much fun out there."
West Virginia continued the fun after five-straight Providence points could have put a damper on the party. Tyrone Sally found a soaring dunk off of a beautiful assist from Mike Gansey and another layin just minutes later put WVU back comfortably in control with a 32-14 advantage with 4:18 left in the half.
Providence was able to put a slight dent into the Mountaineer lead, but for a team that had found a win just once in the Big East's premier event, going into the half with a 35-20 lead was a great place to be.
WVU, which lives and dies by its shooting numbers, shot 43 percent in the opening 20 minutes, compared to just 20 percent from the Friars. Ten Providence turnovers led to 13 Mountaineer points, and while Pittsnogle and Beilein both were already in double-digits with 11 points, Providence's star, Ryan Gomes, enter the locker room with just four.
While the ESPN television commentators discussed the chances of a second-half Providence comeback, West Virginia went to work on ending any speculation. Providence's pressure defense had little effect on the Mountaineers and two and a half minutes into the second period, the lead was still 15.
Things began to spin out of control for the Friars when Providence coach Tim Welsh picked up a technical for arguing a no-call under the basket, and the conference's No. 9 seed began to loose its focus.
While Welsh continued to ignore his team and focused on berating the official, Pittsnogle knocked down his third three-point strike of the game and the Mountaineer faithful that had somehow crawled out of the bowels of Madison Square Garden began to voice their approval of West Virginia's 18-point lead.
Sensing the game slipping away, Providence went into panic mode, throwing on a full-court trap to try to create some Mountaineer miscues. All it created, however, was more open looks. After cutting the lead to 14, the Friars gave up a three to J.D. Collins as the shot clock expired, putting West Virginia back ahead by 17 with 12:36 and driving a stake into Providence's comeback hopes.
The remainder of the game was little more than a show and a celebration for the Mountaineers. Pittsnogle continued his three-point show, Sally showed his athleticism driving to the basket and Gansey continued to scrap on both ends of the floor. West Virginia's aggressive play helped extend the lead to 20 with 7:07, and it only grew from there.
With the clock winding down and Duriel Price, Luke Bonner and B.J. Byerson on the floor, West Virginia put an exclamation point on the win with a Bonner layup, and West Virginia walked off the floor with an 82-59 win, its 19 victory of the season.
Pittsnogle led the West Virginia attack with 24 points and eight rebounds, while Tyrone Sally chipped in 16 points and three assists. Beilein hit a couple of NBA-range threes to finish with 13, and Mike Gansey cracked the double-figure mark with 11.
"This is the first time we have come in here wearing white jerseys," said a proud West Virginia head coach. "You are supposed to win when you have on white jerseys, because that means you are the higher seed. But it felt good to finally get a win here."
But what the win means, Beilein is happy leaving that up to somebody else.
"We have never talked about the NCAAs or said, ‘this win will get you in,'" explained Beilein. "But we did know that a win today could only enhance our chances. We are just glad that we have an opportunity to play again tomorrow. I purposely came back and watched the quarterfinal last year and watched the excitement build. I said then, ‘we have to get our guys here.' There may not have been a big crowd here today, but there will be tomorrow."
That crowd may be behind the Mountaineers, considering the fact that West Virginia (19-9) will take on No. 1 seed Boston College (24-3), a team that is leaving the conference after this season. The Mountaineers will certainly be underdogs when they take the court Thursday at noon, but they are certainly not backing down from the challenge.
"This is the game we wanted," said Patrick Beilein. "We played them pretty close the last time we played them. We can definitely go out and get a win. Just because they are the No. 1 seed, that doesn't mean anything."