"Syracuse just played terrific the whole tournament," said WVU head coach John Beilein. "No matter what we tried to do with them, they were just so quick with the ball, and they get into the seem so quickly. We didn't have any answer for that."
The game started on a positive note, with West Virginia's first points of the evening coming on a Frank Young three from the corner, just as they did in the Mountaineers semifinal triumph over Villanova. The opening action swayed back and forth, but just before the first media timeout open looks from Young and Kevin Pittsnogle were off the mark, and Syracuse converted with points on the other end. Two Hakim Warrick free throws gave Syracuse a 10-5 lead, and it was clear that the Orange had plans to take care of the Mountaineers as early as possible.
West Virginia, though, had other ideas, and threes from Gansey and Sally brought them within one at 15-14, as the crowd began to settle in for a fight. The Mountaineers were able to keep it close, and in fact tied the game up at 23-23 with a Joe Herber three with 5:51 left on the clock, but a couple of blown opportunities allowed the ‘Cuse to go on one of its patented runs.
J.D. Collins, Pat Beilein, Frank Young and Kevin Pittsnogle all came up empty on good looks from three-point range, and Syracuse suddenly found some energy. A Demetris Nichols three began a 10-2 run to close out the half that included a pair of WVU turnovers and some defensive lapses that led to easy buckets and a thunderous dunk. The late run, starting at the 1:48 mark of the opening period allowed Syracuse to convert a 31-29 lead into a 41-31 advantage, and West Virginia went into the locker rooms with a lot of work left to do.
"They really didn't get any space on us until the last three minutes," said Beilein. "We had a couple of key turnovers, but (the Orangemen) are a good basketball team, and you have to play almost perfect to stay with them."
The Orange began the second half just as they had ended the first, pressuring the WVU offense and making seemingly every shot on the other end. Another 10-2 run was the result, and with 16:12 left to play a Warrick free throw put his team ahead 51-33 and the Orange-filled Garden crowd was beginning to sense a blowout.
West Virginia, though, did not get to the championship game by giving up, and that did not change in the final game. Over the next eight minutes, John Beilein's team outscored the favored Syracuse squad 17-4, as D'or Fisher began to assert himself inside. Gansey's jumper with 8:21 brought the Mountaineers as close as they would get, 55-50.
"We changed the slides in the 1-3-1, and we just had a different slide involving different angles," explained Beilein. "It was enough to give us a little bit of an edge and get us going."
Warrick, the conference's player of the year, though decided to flip the switch, and the Mountaineers could not turn him away. The eventual tournament MVP scored four of the next six points in the game, and that five point lead grew to a nine-point advantage, 60- 51, with 4:17 remaining on the clock. West Virginia could not grow any closer as the Orange made their shots down the stretch to capture another title.
Warrick's 20 points led all scorers and earned him the tournament MVP, while 16 from Gerry McNamara and 13 from Josh pace helped earn them both a spot on the all-tournament squad.
West Virginia's effort was led by Tyrone Sally, who came back from an illness to chip in 13 and 11 from both Mike Gansey and Joe Herber. Gansey was named to the five-man all-tournament team as well, as was Kevin Pittsnogle, who played his poorest game of the tournament scoring just two points.
The Mountaineers will return to Morgantown and wait for the NCAA selection special to see just where they will be headed next week.
"I'm sure whoever we play in the NCAA tournament will be a little scared of us," said Gansey. "We are a dangerous team now. I think everyone in the country knows that West Virginia is a pretty good basketball team."