West Virginia hit four 3-pointers in its first five field goals to take a 14-4 lead within the first five minutes. It chased that by scoring nine of the next 12 points and built a 34-23 edge by the break, then held off a USF rally and a one for 14 second-half performance from behind the arc.
"There is a learning curve that is taking place right now," West Virginia head coach John Beilein said. "The mental toughness is really important. We didn't shoot well tonight at times, which you'll do on the road as well, but we found a way to win."
South Florida, using a physical inside game, proved the contest wouldn't be like the first three league wins, when the Mountaineers led foes by at least 19 points in each. The Bulls (10-9, 1-4) made a 10-2 run led by McHugh Mattis' five points midway through the second half to pull as close as 43-40 with 13 minutes remaining. Young had already hit WVU's final three of the game with nearly 18 minutes left, and the cold shooting combined with a lack of interior athleticism allowed Mattis and center Kentrell Gransberry to score 16 of USF's 18 points over a nine-minute span to keep pace.
"We had a good stretch where we were competing and getting good stops," Mattis said.
That didn't last. Free throw woes – USF missed six of seven in a key stretch and 11 of 20 overall – and four points each from Joe Alexander and Da'Sean Butler helped WVU build the lead back to double digits at 53-43 with 9:45 remaining. The Bulls, led by Mattis' fifth double-double of the season with a game-high 18 points and 11 rebounds, never got closer than seven points afterward in remaining winless in 11 conference road games in two seasons in the Big East.
Melvin Buckley added 17 points and Mattis, tied for the Big East lead in blocks, tallied five. South Florida lost its edge when it lost its inside game after Kentrell Gransberry, who had 11 points and nine rebounds, fouled out with two minutes left and USF down eight.
"There were a few things down the stretch we were not able to capitalize on," South Florida head coach Robert McCullum said. "Our guys did a good job coming back, and there wasn't anything fancy there. We just played harder and a little smarter."
Alex Ruoff added 13 points, seven assists and a season-best seven rebounds for West Virginia in his most balanced outing of the year. Butler and Alexander scored 12 and 10 points, respectively, and combined for a dozen rebounds in a game in which WVU had just 33.
"They are learning just how physical it is," said Young, one of two WVU seniors. "When we made cuts, they would check you and you really had to work to get rebounds. We did a good job of fighting through it and not losing our composure."
The win was virtually a must-have for West Virginia. It plays four of its next five away from home, where it has lost to every major conference foe it has played this year. One game is against Marshall, a team that has upset ranked WVU squads the last two seasons but has not beaten WVU three consecutive times on a neutral floor.
"It really was," Young said of the need for the win. "We didn't want to start a losing streak at home. We had those two road losses and it was a perfect time to come home and get a big win."
The home advantage has been notable for West Virginia, a team which relies largely on its shooting to win. In two Big East road games, the Mountaineers allowed foes to hit 52 percent of their shots against a defense that ranks second in the NCAA in points allowed at 53.6. WVU converted just 38 percent itself in the road games to average 60.5 points, more than 11 below the season average. At home, it hit 48 percent of its shots over the first three Big East wins and averaged 74 points while allowing 58.
"Everybody is going to have bad nights in this league," Beilein said. "We just need to get the home wins and find a way to win a couple on the road. How much more ready are we? I don't know. We're trying to win on the road, and I don't have all the answers."