West Virginia led 16-0 with five minutes played against WMU (2-3) after starting the opening round game on a 14-2 run against Montana. After the initial blitzkrieg of threes – there were six in the first eight Mountaineer makes – WVU continued to build upon its lead through the first half. Its domination and balance (West Virginia had five assists on as many baskets to start the game and 23 on 25 hoops overall) extended to every facet, as point guard Darris Nichols scored a career high 18 points to lead the team. Rob Summers (10), Alex Ruoff (11) and Wellington Smith (11) also set career highs.
"We have so many options," said Nichols, who made all 10 free throws. "There is no go-to guy. Anybody can score. That will be hard for the other team. Every game I try to be more aggressive, and by me being more aggressive it makes the entire team better."
The defense held Western Michigan, which had averaged nearly 40 percent from the floor and three-point range, to just 23.1 percent on three of 13 shooting in the first half. The Broncos had field goal droughts of 4:52 (before their first points), 6:33 (between its second and last field goal of the half) and 7:37 until the break. It hit 51 percent in the second half, when head coach Steve Hawkins began running more cutters along the baseline, forcing the wings to check on them, which allowed additional penetration. By then, the game was well over.
"We are going out there with a chip on a shoulder, ready to prove to the country that even though we lost five seniors we are a good team," said Young, who finished as the fifth WVU player in double figures with 13. "We are using the same concepts as we have been, but our defense is becoming our MO to win games."
West Virginia has now forced 119 turnovers in first five games and has showcased excellent perimeter defense. Beilein admitted that the Mountaineers might be further along than even he imagined, especially defensively.
"We really caught Western Michigan on a tough night for some of the things we do," Beilein said. "It's a great win, because I know that team is going to win a lot of games this year. … We have had two wins that were pretty sizeable. I did not expect that. We are who we are. We are just trying to get better. Nothing is easy. I think sometimes kids get bored and want to do something else even if something is working."
The Mountaineers didn't coast as effectively on offense as the 44-11 halftime lead indicated, scoring just nine points in the 10 minutes after the 16-0 lead. WVU missed 11 of 12 shots at one point and took poor looks on the offensive end. It compounded that with coming too far out on the cuts on screens, forcing it away from the basket and eliminating three-point chances on a catch-and-shoot. Jamie Smalligan also appeared hesitant to pop from behind the arc, but tried to create his own shots inside where there were none. Those two factors – combined with freshmen Da'Sean Butler and Joe Muzzulla being on the floor in the stretch – hindered the offense.
The defense, quickly becoming the most powerful part of WVU's plethoric arsenal, limited Western Michigan to just three first half field goals and none in the last 7:37. The Broncos had six turnovers in the first four minutes and 20 by the break, their most in any half this year. WMU got to the line just three times in the last seven minutes despite not making a shot. It was the lowest scoring first half for Western Michigan in at least two years. It tallied no less than 19 points in any half last year.
"We ran into a buzzsaw," Hawkins said. "They are outstanding and will get better every game out. We told our guys at halftime that it was ballgame. We had no delusions of grandeur. To play against the system of West Virginia with having just 24 hours is difficult. We tried to attack (the 1-3-1) in the first half, but we did not go about it the right way. There is a traditional idea as to how to attack a 1-3-1 zone, but they do not play it the traditional way. They extend it so far out and guard the sidelines. The next time we play a 1-3-1, which I hope is never, we will be more ready for it."
Young's 11 points to lead the Mountaineers at the break were one more than Western Michigan scored. The senior, from Tallahassee, had that total with nearly eight minutes to play in the first half. Smalligan and Nichols had eight and seven, respectively. Ruoff finished with the more impressive line of the line, recording the 11 points as well as eight assists to one turnover, five rebounds and four steals in 27 minutes.
"It is always fun to play in front of family," said Ruoff, who is from Spring Hill, Fla. "I am really happy in this tournament for me and Frank. Some of the guys on the team know me as a jacker. I try not to throw too much up there. I do pass first, but I like to shoot."
West Virginia advanced to 16-13 all-time against the Mid-American conference with the win. It is 10-10 all-time in the state of Florida. The Mountaineers are now 64-13 when leading at the break under Beilein, 47-10 when scoring 70-plus points and 68-8 when leading by 10-plus points.
"My favorite stat was seeing Darris Nichols score 18 points," Beilein said. "He was a very good scorer at Radford High, then got here and was such a team guy to defer to others. He did the same tonight and scored some, but with poise. He only took a few shots."
West Virginia will play in the championship at 7:30 on Sunday against Arkansas. The game will be televised by ESPN2. With a win in the title game, WVU would capture its first three-game tournament championship since it won the San Juan Shootout in Puerto Rico in 1997-98, when WVU advanced to the Sweet 16. It is also the first time in five in-season tournaments under Beilein that the Mountaineers will reach the finals. West Virginia did win the Hispanic College Fund Classic in 2001 with victories over Southern Miss and New Mexico.
"They are real physical and they are pretty big," Young said of Arkansas. "They have a good guard. It will be a good match-up in the championship game."