NEW YORK – Darris Nichols' aggressiveness and last-second 3-pointer garner the guard Player of the Game honors in West Virginia's 63-62 win over Mississippi State in the NIT semifinals.
Nichols, who scored a team-high 17 points, will be most remembered for rolling off a screen and burying a three from the left corner that finished off a Mountaineer rally from 14 points down over the final 15 minutes. But the junior was uber-efficient and effective in the win. He drove nearly at will, and either finished or drew a foul on every attempt save one.
He picked his times to run and times to reign in the offense, and that aspect of play was magnified when MSU seduced West Virginia into an uptempo style late in the first half and early in the second. It was Nichols was settled the squad, setting the stage for the rally. He had five rebounds and three assists against no turnovers, a key on a night when the usually-steady Frank Young – who did tally 16 points – had four turnovers to his one assist. It was a total team effort, and Nichols, as has become his custom spearheaded the charge. It was enough to make a grown man at least weep a bit.
"I nearly cried when he hit that last shot," Young said. "He extended my career one more game. I was excited. … I would definitely compare this to the runs we made in the NCAA because all the emotion is still there. Some people might contest that it's not as much emotion because it's the NIT and not the NCAA. But when you get a run and get the crowd into it and then Darris hits a shot like that, it's the same as the great run we made two years ago when we came back to beat Wake Forest (in the NCAAs)."
Jamie Smalligan. The center started slow, but drilled two huge threes in the late charge. He also drew contact on a 3-point try late, getting to the line and converting two of the resulting three free throws under major pressure. He also became increasingly physical over the final 10 minutes, battling the more athletic Mississippi State players inside, and tapping around three rebounds late that were corralled by teammates. He showed his outside-inside game, the latter at a time when it was most needed.
Rob Summers. Another solid outing. In 23 minutes he had nine rebounds, four points and countless solid screens, plus a calming effect on the team. Da'Sean Butler also gets a nod for his rock-hard, blue-collar game. It lacked any of the finishing spin moves, but he did jam home two points and routinely pushed the break whenever possible. The freshman, quickly maturing beyond his years, also knew when to run out and when to get the ball in the hands of Nichols or fellow point guard Joe Mazzulla.
The glass work. West Virginia outrebounded the SEC's finest board group 41-38. Part of it was great interior defense over the final three minutes, and part was crashing the offensive glass with reckless abandon. Though WVU missed three consecutive inside shots that could have cost it the game, the fact it gained those attempts alludes to its physical play and desire for the ball.
All the gents here before. West Virginia won its 1,500th game in school history, good for 25th-best all-time in the NCAA. That's an elite grouping, and it's a result of years of good to great play and tradition. Come Thursday, when the Mountaineers are one of six teams left playing and on the floor for the latest date in school history, remember all the old lads and soon-to-be grads that have been able to walk the rolled out carpet, as the fans greet the Mountaineers for the final time in the 2006-07 season.