The Mountaineers (27-9) finished with its most wins in 25 years, tying for the second-most in school history behind the 1959 NCAA runner-ups, which won 29 with NBA legend Jerry West. Young was named the NIT Most Outstanding Player, and WVU point guard Darris Nichols, who added 20 points, was named all-tournament. Da'Sean Butler came off the bench to score 20, one off his career high.
It was a dominating effort from start to finished. West Virginia dissected Clemson with a series of backdoor cuts and open threes, and the Tigers (25-11), losers for the first time versus a nonconference foe this year, were never in the game over the final 20 minutes after WVU built a 38-26 lead at the break by hitting four consecutive 3-pointers, two by Young. He added two more in the second half to lift his career number to 187, good for fourth all-time, one ahead of Lionel Armstead and 13 behind Chris Leonard, whose single-season school record Young snapped earlier this season.
"I wanted to make sure I left it all on the floor," Young said. "I know I had to really step my game up and step in as a leader as a senior. I knew any game could be my last. … Just to see how much I really took into leading this team and how much I really took on that pressure and took the personality to lead. I think the trophy signifies that I did a pretty good job."
West Virginia, in its second NIT final in school history after winning it in 1942 for its only national championship, continually harassed Clemson via its trademark 1-3-1 zone, causing 13 turnovers and a resulting in as many points. The ability to withstand the early foul trouble of Young and Nichols was key, as the resulting extended play of Wellington Smith and Joe Mazzulla didn't cramp the flow on either end, and the forward-guard combo played well within the offense and managed to keep WVU even with the Tigers, who were still playing with their starters.
Clemson was completely befuddled by the 1-3-1 zone at times, passing to the interior, then getting trapped along the baseline, or simply being cut off in penetration and forced to take a rushed shot late in the clock. Time actually expired once without the Tigers even approaching taking a shot attempt, and their final basket of the half, by point guard K.C. Rivers with 40 seconds left, was their lone score over the final four-plus minutes.
West Virginia took control after there were nine lead changes and four ties over the first 10 minutes. Three consecutive baskets from the paint put WVU up 26-20 before Clemson answered with consecutive inside baskets. The Mountaineers exploded from there, drilling four consecutive 3-pointers over 2:44. The 12-0 run extended the edge to 38-24 just before the break. The four treys put WVU at eight of 14 (57.1 percent) after the first 20 minutes, by far its best outside shooting half of the NIT; it actually shot just 45.5 percent from the field. Clemson, which had hit a sizzling 18 of 39 (46.2 percent) from 3-point range in last two NIT games, missed seven of nine, largely due to WVU's defense.
"We were overwhelmed," Clemson head coach Oliver Purnell said. "It's a little eaiser when the zone isn't as good as the zone from West Virginia. It's part of what they do, and it gave us problems in the first half."
And throughout. The edge ballooned to a game-high 17 at 49-32 with 14:50 left on Young's three, and reached 16 twice more, the latter on a Young free throw as WVU made seven of its final 10 foul shots to seal the game. As the Mountaineers dribbled out the final seconds, a roar rose from the partisan crowd, who had followed the East Region's No. 1 seed through wins over Delaware State, UMass, NC State, Mississippi State and Clemson, the second-to-last game being sandwiched between wins over the ACC, a satisfying conclusion to a postseason that began with disappointment when WVU was among the last teams left out of the NCAA Tournament. Now, it will be one of just two postseason teams to win its final game.
"You know, we wanted to be in the NCAA Tournament, but to win this tournament, all the joy is still there," said Young, who has played more games than any other player in WVU history. "We're happy about finishing our season with a win. We're happy about all the things we have accomplished and proving a lot of people wrong."
Including pundits who picked the Mountaineers to finish 12th in the Big East. They went 20-8 in the regular season and 9-7 in the Big East to finish seventh and beat Final Four participant UCLA when the Bruins were ranked second.
"It's runs in college basketball," WVU head coach John Beilein said. "This is terrific. You make the NCAA Tournament, you get a ring; if there is not a run, if you cannot continue the season, it's very shallow. You make a run like this and …the teams that are home watching us play. It's a great signal for what we have been able to accomplish."
Clemson was led by 18 points from Rivers, also named to the all-tournament team. He led the Tigers in scoring in four of their five NIT games, though Clemson dropped to 13-2 when he scores at least 13.Vernon Hamilton added 16, and the three other starters were in double-figures as Clemson finished with five players averaging 10 points or more. But after starting the season 17-0 – the Tigers were the last Division I team to lose – it dropped 11 of its final 19 games.
"I thought they defiantly outplayed us tonight," Purnell said. "That zone gave us all kinds of problems. Look at the turnover total, which is pretty shocking. And we didn't get to the offensive glass, which I thought we could. You've got to give them credit for their aggressiveness to keep us off.
Clemson finished with just eight second-chance points to West Virginia's 13 and was outrebounded on the respective offensive glass 12-11. The Mountaineers, the Big East's second-worst rebounding team, held a shocking 35-31 edge on the boards overall.
West Virginia finished the year winning seven of its final eight and has now won six of its last nine at Madison Square Garden. It advanced to 21-15 all-time in 15 NIT appearances and 3-1 versus Clemson, avenging a 1994 NIT defeat to the Tigers. The Mountaineers also finished with 371 3-pointers, setting a school record for the third time in as many seasons.
The pep band blared ‘Country Roads' and the school fight song before the Garden cranked up Frank Sinatra's ‘New York, New York' and ‘Celebration' and other party songs as West Virginia cut down the net. Rob Summers, with the lone other senior besides Young, held the trophy while teammates took turns cutting the nets. Young swirled the net around his head once the final snip was taken, each player holding an individual piece as well.
"We were taking awfully big swipes out of that baby," Beilein said of his teams' net cutting. "I don't blame them at all. But we were going to have this little, little net to hang up on our trophy, so I tried to give us a little more space. They responded."
Much like they have all year.