West Virginia started slowly, missing its first six shots, then began to dissect UCLA in a shockingly diametric style than utilized in last season's game. It hit backdoor baskets and was aggressive going to the rim while hitting just eight 3-pointers, two less than its season average. Three 3-pointers came in a burst before halftime that gave WVU a 32-22 edge at the break, the lowest first-half score for UCLA this season. It built that to a game-high lead of 19 at 47-28 with 14:18 to play before UCLA seemingly woke up from its cross-country trip.
The Bruins, who had not scored a field goal over a 9:16 stretch spanning both halves, used their quickness and inside prescience to cut into the WVU advantage. Arron Affalo, who scored a game-high 27 points, and Alfred Aboya combined for nine points in a 15-0 run that pulled UCLA within 47-43 with 9:19 remaining.
"The main discussion was poise," said Ruoff of the gut-check moment. "That was a point we wanted to make. We had some uncharacteristic turnovers. We were not relying on the offense. We were getting out of it and relying to much on individual play. It was time to get back to what got us the lead."
Enter Darris Nichols and Ruoff. The backcourt tandem scored five quick points, and suddenly WVU again began to believe. It reasserted itself via drives to the basket and the teams played back and forth for the next five minutes before Affalo – which scored six straight Bruin points to keep UCLA within range – struck again. The All-American turned consecutive Mountaineer turnovers into back-to-back hoops to get his team within 60-55 with 3:49 left. The Bruins then got as close as four, but failed to convert on two offensive trips while West Virginia made seven of eight free throws in the final minute to hold on.
Frank Young added 14 points and freshman Da'Sean Butler had 13 for the WVU, which now, after losing five of its top six players, appears primed to make a push in the final five games to get to its third consecutive NCAA Tournament – something unthinkable at the start of the year. UCLA (21-3) lost for the first time in four games, and has dropped three of six road contests. It has lost three of four all-time to WVU, among its worst records against any foe.
"They are an outstanding team," UCLA head coach Ben Howland said. "To allow them to go up 19 points dug a big hole. You have to give West Virginia credit. It's a very good team."
WVU might have lacked for confidence entering, as it trailed by double-digits for most of its last game against No. 6 Pitt, a 60-47 loss. That's forgotten after splitting its toughest two-game stretch rank-wise since it defeated No. 5 Kentucky and No. 1 North Carolina – which was on a 36-game winning streak and had captured the national title the previous year – in consecutive days in Lexington in Dec. of 1957.
"That shows what kind of guys we have," Ruoff said. "It's a dream come true to play here, at this school, and beat UCLA. Any high school player in the country would love to play at West Virginia. We can play with those teams. The fans we have, the atmosphere, the Coliseum, the tradition, the wins. It's great."
UCLA was without starting point guard Darren Collison, who sprained his left shoulder in the Bruins' last game against rival USC. Russell Westbrook started his first career game, and it showed early as the Mountaineers forced the freshman into a pair of turnovers during a 10-0 run just before the half. WVU freshman Da'Sean Butler attacked his counterpart at the top of the 1-3-1 zone and schooled UCLA's interior players with spin moves and reverse layups. He scored seven of WVU's final 15 points of the first half as the Mountaineers turned an 18-17 deficit into the double-digit edge. Like last season, the Bruins were confused by West Virginia's constant cutting and were routinely beaten with the backdoor and from the arc.
"We said we might lose to UCLA, but the water's boiling," West Virginia head coach John Beilein said. "We're getting there. Without question, they played with a chip on their shoulders today."
The game started with a tight tussle in a contrast of styles. UCLA dominated inside within offensive sets, managing 12 points. West Virginia used its system and shooting advantage and turned up its defense in the 1-3-1 zone and man, forcing the Bruins to attempt 12-plus foot shots that began to turn the tide just before the half. By the time UCLA went without a field goal for 9:16, WVU had turned a 22-22 game into the 47-28 lead. Seldom-used guard Ted Talkington, playing because of injuries to fellow backups Devan Bawinkel and Joe Mazzulla, hit a 3-pointer and another jumper 1:32 apart for the big lead of 47-28.
West Virginia had 15 points off 15 UCLA turnovers in a solid display of transition offense, something lacking last year, and finished with a surprising 32-28 edge in points in the paint.
"We knew they would come in and be a tough team," Young said. "We wanted to match that intensity and let them know that they would be in a fight for 40 minutes by boxing out and keeping them off the boards. They got some putbacks in the second half, but for a full game we did a good job of matching their toughness. We knew how good they were and we matched them.
"All the sudden, just because we beat UCLA doesn't mean we are in the NCAA Tournament. We have to stay hungry and keep winning."