"We said we would take a two, but we wanted to win the game," WVU head coach John Beilein said. "If you have the three, take it. We put our two best (shooters) out there. Darris was option one."
That's all it took. The guard, who finished with a team-high 17 points, rolled off a screen via a play given to Beilein at his coach's clinic in November. WVU had missed the shot that time. It didn't here. Nichols stepped back and buried West Virginia's seventh 3-pointer of the game.
"I stepped back a bit," Nichols said. "I didn't know where I was on the floor, and couldn't see because it was contested."
Yet the shot swished cleanly through as time expired, and once the officials checked to ensure that it was a three, West Virginia (26-9) celebrated wildly by their bench, a finals bid and the school's 1,500th win secured.
"He set me up like he was going to come off a double screen and he just faded away," MSU's Jamont Gordon said. "I got screened a little bit and he knocked down the shot. I didn't think it was going in. I was just hoping he would not make it."
The clutch shot completed a West Virginia comeback that began with a 13-2 run after trailing 48-36 with 13 minutes left. WVU's defense – not its trademark outside shooting –spurred that effort, as the Mountaineers got stops on three straight Mississippi State possessions and relentlessly attacked the basket after 11 of its first 14 threes missed the mark.
Nichols and Frank Young, who owns the single-season school record for 3-pointers with 111 this year, bookended the run with threes, while three other players got to the foul line during the push. Nichols' three pulled WVU within 50-49 and setup a wild final eight minutes in which State led by as many as six. MSU held a 62-60 lead with 16.3 seconds remaining. Nichols missed a three, but the ball was recovered by the Bulldogs out of bounds. Beilein then took the timeout to setup the final play.
"Give this team credit," MSU head coach Rick Stansbury said. "They made the last play they had to make to win the game. Unfortunately, that's the play that gets magnified. We got a big lead and we had some chances to seal it and we didn't make the plays."
Young added 16 points for West Virginia and Alex Ruoff had 10 and four assists. Jamie Smalligan came off the bench to tally six, all coming in the final three-plus minutes, including two when he was fouled on a 3-point shot with 53 seconds left. That helped setup the final four possessions. WVU also finished with a shocking 41-38 advantage on the boards. The Mountaineers ranked second-to-last in the Big East in rebounding, while State led the SEC. They also managed a combined 28-8 edge in points off turnovers and second-chance points. Dietric Slater led Mississippi State with 18 and two other Bulldogs reach double figures.
West Virginia did lead the first 17 minutes, using three 3-pointers by Young to build a 19-12 edge midway through the first half. But Mississippi State's quickness and interior defense began to wear on the Mountaineers, forced into an uptempo game that suited the Bulldogs' strength. MSU closed with a 20-9 run over the final six-plus minutes to lead 32-28 at the break. Slater and Richard Delk combined for 11 points in the push, and only Ruoff's seven points over that span kept West Virginia that close, as no other Mountaineer scored.
WVU had eight turnovers against seven assists through the first 20 minutes, eye-opening numbers for a team that ranked in the nation's top five in the stat throughout the season. It was just the second time in 10 games that WVU has trailed at the half.
"This was very, very similar to the Louisville game where the ball didn't bounce our way late," said Beilein of WVU's quarterfinal Big East Tournament loss, a game considered to have cost it an NCAA bid. "This time it certainly did. Either team was capable of winning that game. If anybody would be disappointed to play in the NIT, they are absolutely crazy."
Not West Virginia. The Mountaineers' 359 3-pointers are a school record and their 26 wins tie for the most since they won 27 in 1982, a year after they made their last NIT final four appearance. WVU won the tournament in 1942, when it was considered the de facto national championship. Mississippi State (21-13), which had won its three NIT games by an average of 21 points, finished 5-11 games away from home in failing to make its first NIT title game.
West Virginia will face Clemson, a one-point winner over Air Force, in the final Thursday at 7 p.m. The game is nationally televised by ESPN.