After losing four of its last six games, WVU (21-8, 9-7 Biog East) appeared to be playing its way out of the tournament. But Cincinnati, the Big East's last-place team, served as a stopgap and gave the Mountaineers a chance to make a third NCAA appearance in as many seasons for the first time in 23 years with a run in the league tournament.
"I'm pleased we are still sitting here right now with the chance to still go to the NCAA Tournament if we play well in New York City," West Virginia coach John Beilein said.
After an 18-5 start, West Virginia lost twice to No. 12 Pittsburgh and once at No. 9 Georgetown in addition to dropping a game at Providence. It finally caught a scheduling break and took advantage by hitting 14 3-pointers, including five in the first seven minutes. Ruoff, who set his previous career high in the first meeting with UC, hit three consecutive threes during a 14-3 push that built a 17-6 edge, then gave West Virginia its largest lead on his fifth three of the game. That made it 79-56 with 1:32 left and put an exclamation point on a game that was never in doubt. The Mountaineers led 40-25 by the break, and the Bearcats never got any closer than 12 over the final 20 minutes in finishing 0-9 on the road this season.
"It's a lot of pressure," Ruoff said of a contest viewed as a must-win. "You can't say there was no pressure. We did everything we could to take the pressure off us. It's great for our morale and a great confidence boost going into the Big East Tournament."
West Virginia ensured Cincinnati would fail to reach the postseason for the first time in 17 years, including 14 in the NCAA Tournament. The Bearcats (11-19, 2-14) lost for the 11th time in 12 games.
In upsetting West Virginia in the teams' first meeting, the Bearcats shot 41 free throws and turned the ball over six times. It had 12 turnovers and got to the line for just 14 shots today, partially a product of being without Marvin Gentry, who scored a career-high 32 points in the first meeting. The guard injured his knee and missed the final two games for Cincinnati, whose record is its worst since it went 3-25 in 1983-84, a span of 24 seasons.
"It would have been a modern miracle if we would have made it to the postseason this year after the program I inherited," first-year Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin said. "I knew what I was getting into. It's just been an uphill battle for us all season."
Cincinnati was led by Deonta Vaughn's 18 points. John Williamson finished with 14 points and 13 rebounds for his fifth double-double of the season. Vaughn, who averages 14.3 points per game, is the second-highest scoring freshman in school history.
Darris Nichols added 16 points and made all 10 of his free throws and Frank Young had 10 for West Virginia, which went 14-1 at home, but ended the year without a win in five games against the Big East's top six teams.
It will finish seventh, eighth or ninth in the conference after being chosen 12th in the preseason. If Providence and Marquette both win or both lose tonight, WVU faces Villanova in the first round. If they split in any combination, the Mountaineers play Providence. It was the fifth consecutive season that West Virginia has finished better than predicted.
"I definitely compare this to two years ago when we had our backs to the wall," Young said of WVU's Elite Eight team in 2005. "We know we are going to need a game, and maybe two, in the Garden to get into the tournament. Once you step on that floor, it's business."