The Mountaineers, relying on a career-high 14 points from Darris Nichols, won their fifth season-opener in as many years under Beilein on Friday in WVU's lowest scoring win under the coach. The new-look team mixed man defense, superior rebounding and better raw athleticism with rookie mistakes and poor shooting, including a six-of-23 performance (26.1 percent) from the field in the second half.
"It reminded me an awful lot of my first game here against Delaware State," Beilein said. "Just take that win and get it to film so we can improve."
He might not like the Director's Cut. After building its largest lead of the game, at 44-31 with 8:42 left, WVU went cold from the field, missing its final eight shots of the game. Mount St. Mary's, overmatched but better honed, took advantage to piece together a 9-2 run to pull within 46-40 with 2:20 left. The Mountaineers (1-0) were bailed out by true freshman Da'Sean Butler, who came off the bench to score 11 points. Butler hit both ends of a one-and-one foul situation from the line, and Mount St. Mary's (0-1) never threatened again, being kept in check by two more free throws and solid defense down the stretch.
"They probably thought I was going to panic," Butler said. "But I saw them confident. They believe in me and I believe in them. I'll make plays if I have a chance to make them."
It was the fewest points scored by any Mountaineer team since a 62-50 loss at No. 5 Boston College on Feb. 1, 2005 and the fewest in a win since a 49-47 victory at No. 7 Temple on Jan. 6, 1994.
"If you hold a Big East team to shooting under 30 percent, you are probably going to win," said Mount St. Mary's coach Milan Brown, whose brother, Marseilles, played for Beilein at Richmond. "We came up on the short end of the stick."
With 8:02 left in the first half, backup point guard Joe Mazzulla hit a 3-pointer to give WVU an 18-12 lead. After a Mount St. Mary's bucket, West Virginia scored 10 of the last 16 points – six of which came on 3-pointers – for a 28-20 lead at the break, the lowest-scoring first half for WVU in 12 games. After Nichols tied a career-high with a lay-up for the first points of the second half, Mount St. Mary's answered with a 7-0 run that cut the edge to the 30-27 lead with 17 minutes left. It kept pace until Butler's eight consecutive points gave West Virginia a 37-29 lead with 14:50 remaining. In all, the 10-2 run included three 3-pointers over as many minutes and gave WVU a 40-29 advantage with 12:39 left. Mount St. Mary's never got closer than the six points afterward.
It wasn't the easy opener WVU had become accustomed to the last two seasons, when it won a combined 46 games and went to the Elite Eight and Sweet 16, respectively. Four of five starters are gone from that team, and the lone holdover, senior Frank Young, missed all eight shots from the field, six from 3-point range, in the worst shooting performance of his career.
"It definitely wasn't the way I wanted to start my senior year, with a goose egg," Young said. "Everybody kept being positive on the bench, and we got a lot of scrappy balls and loose balls that helped us get second opportunities to score."
It was somewhat expected. Entering the season, WVU combined for just 634 total points, the third-fewest of any team in school history. And Mount St. Mary's, which returned three starters, held foes to an average of 66.5 points per game last year, its lowest scoring defense since 1981. Those aspects were offset by 23 points from the West Virginia bench, most of which came from Butler. After Mount St. Mary's pulled within 30-27, West Virginia got three consecutive offense rebounds, the last of which was tapped to Butler, who had just hit a 3-pointer the previous possession. He buried a long two from the right wing, then followed that by ripping away a rebound from Mount St. Mary's and scoring again on a putback. That was part of a 40-36 rebounding edge, surprising for WVU, even against an overmatched foe not considered a mid-major.
No Mount St. Mary's players ever reached double figures. It was led by Markus Mitchell's nine points. Chris van added eight. WVU starter Alex Ruoff added eight points.
Both teams hit 17 field goals, but combined for a 34-for-105 performance (32.4 percent) from the field. West Virginia went 17-of-57 (29.8 percent), but advanced to 84-14 in season openers and 89-9 in home openers. It is now 32-5 all-time against the Northeast Conference.
"We built that lead, then took a couple of ‘my turn' shots," Butler said. "We came back and made plays after those shots, even though we didn't shoot well overall."
Mount St. Mary's lost its 34th straight November road game. It is now 0-15 in Division I road openers. The Nov. 10th start was the earliest in school history for both teams. The 9,744 attendance was the third-largest opening crowd in West Virginia history. The Mountaineers, 22-11 last year, raised their NCAA Sweet 16 banner from last year in front of three graduated players from that team in guard J.D. Collins, forward Mike Gansey and guard Patrick Beilein.