Immaculate Perception

NEW YORK – When Darris Nichols' last-gasp 3-pointer swished through to rally West Virginia over Mississippi State 63-62 in the NIT semifinals, it was a culmination of five months of preparation.

Not just in shooting, but on the actual play. Former Duquesne and Nebraska coach Danny Nee had given WVU head coach John Beilein the play at Beilein's coach's clinic in November. It called for a screen – resembling a double screen – for a team's best two shooters. One would retreat to the left corner, while the other went baseline to the opposite area. Screens by the other players not inbounding the ball would free them, and there were two options off the play, both of which were threes the majority of the time.

Nichols, going left (or right, to inbounder Alex Ruoff), was the first choice. It was an easier pass, being located from under that side of the hoop. Thus, it was shorter, and allowed the fewest time for the defender to gain ground off the screen. The second choice was the longer pass, to the right. That would have been Frank Young, but Ruoff and Nichols, among others, assured it never came to that.

"That's an old coach's play," Beilein said. "I didn't just draw that up; it was given to me. Now, if it's not there, if you don't have a three, you take the two. But if it's there, you have your two best out there. I got it from Danny Nee, and I thanked him several times on ESPN. I probably thanked him twice with the emotions and three times, maybe, but he gave me a couple of ideas."

West Virginia, now 26-9 and approaching its most wins in 26 years, ran the play when it had two seconds left in a scrimmage in the coach's clinic. It missed. It had run the play twice earlier in the year, though not with the game in the balance, and it had worked both times. With 2.1 left, Beilein thought it again the perfect time. Nichols and Young had been arguably as quiet from long range as they have all year. They finished a combined six of 13, which reads as a solid stat line, but much of that came early, and Young, especially, missed some late after nailing 70 percent of his threes in averaging more than 24 points per game in the first three rounds.

"The way they guarded us," Beilein said, "when they are up in you, you are not going to get threes. People play us one way and we're going to counter another way. Part of the (comeback) plan was penetration, because when you have a guy like (Nichols) on the wing, a shooter like him, you don't have to be smart to know that's an option."

And do West Virginia whittled the lead via drives inside, getting it down to a manageable one possession with eight minutes left after trailing by 14, then gritting it out with a solid State squad over the final minutes. When Nichols popped open, Ruoff hit him with a perfect pass, and the guard faded just enough to make sure the pass got over defender Jamont Gordon. The step-back and fade go the shot off with more than one second left, and it swished through as time expired, sending West Virginia to its first postseason final since it played in the Big East title game at Madison Square Garden in 2005.

"I was a little in doubt, because I didn't know where I was on the floor," Nichols said of the three. "I knew we needed a three to win it, so I just stepped back."

Beilein noted that the shot would have simply tied the game during Nichols' freshman season because of the then-newcomers penchant for being on the line. This trey was made from nearly the NBA line.

"I'm glad we made it there and not in the clinic," Beilein said. "I think we get out (Wednesday) and practice a bit. As good as (playing for the Big East title) was, I am sure they are going to want a different ending. Looking at the teams, we are going to have our hands full."

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