The Mountaineers led just 63-57 with eight minutes left before Alexander's rebound dunk and Joe Mazzulla's transition lay-up pushed the edge back to double digits. Nichols then buried consecutive 3-pointers, part of his game-high six for 21 points, after two inside baskets for a 78-62 edge at the 4:17 mark. WVU held the Cougars without a field goal over the final 6:29 to seal the win.
The Mountaineers appeared poised to put the game away with a 54-44 lead with 15 minutes left. But MSU crept back with eight free throws over the next six minutes, and only Alexander's putback and 3-pointer before his dunk kept West Virginia from surrendering the lead. The junior finished with 19 points and six of WVU's 38 rebounds. Mountain State had 46, 22 on offense.
"Our shot selection has to get a lot better," West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins said. "Every time we started a run, somebody took a bad shot. Our shot selection got better (in the final five minutes) and we did a better job of making rotations and getting to the ball on the defensive end. But, by and large, we scored."
And got stops. Mountain State was smothered during the key stretch, and failed to get second chances, an area that hurt West Virginia in the first half. The Cougars missed their final six shots during a closing stretch in which WVU scored 16 of the final 22 points. Half of those came on inside baskets and helped the Mountaineers total 26 points in the paint to MSU's four. West Virginia scored 15 points off 19 turnovers while committing just nine against 17 assists itself. It wasn't a smooth game overall, however, with State getting to the free throw line for 27 attempts, with 22 makes.
"We did hit some shots down the stretch and actually started to rebound the ball and get stops and easy buckets. That's what coach wants," Nichols said. "(But) we are still young. I learned that guys are still committing freshman mistakes and things like that. Our whole team is young. In practices, some of them don't know what it takes. So it's hard in the game. We need to work on some defensive things and shot selection. There are similarities (to last year) in how you keep the floor spaced out. We need to concentrate on getting some easy baskets, too, not just threes."
West Virginia hit eight first-half 3-pointers. A good thing, too, since the inside game was lacking early. Twelve of the first 17 WVU points came via the three, with Ruoff – who scored 14 points – hitting three of his four. His third came with 12 minutes left for a 17-11 lead. Mountain State got within four at 22-18 before the Mountaineers began to click. The transition and interior games began to function more fluidly, and that further opened the outside.
Alexander's two jumpers from the corner sparked a 12-3 run to pull away. The forward scored five consecutive points in the middle of the push. Nichols' 3-pointer and Ruoff's transition lay-up bookended the run, which put the Mountaineers ahead 34-21 with five minutes left in the half. Mountain State answered with five consecutive points from McGriff before Nichols and Butler buried threes. Ruoff added the final three of the half for the 43-32 score at the break. It was Ruoff's fourth of the half.
State shot just 29.3 percent in the first 20 minutes, including two of 10 from beyond the arc. It missed numerous inside shots to offset a 26-21 rebounding advantage, including 13 offensive. The Cougars were led by Tyrice Watkins' 19 points; James Spencer added 17.
"I wanted to play somebody who would challenge us," said Huggins, who wore a black suit and blue shirt with snakeskin cowboy boots. "They are good at playing off the dribble and they spread you because they are good at making shots. I thought it was good for us. I didn't want anybody who would not have been competitive. You have to play transition defense, and they rebound the ball. … We don't rebound it in practice. We have emphasized it, though probably not enough. But you have to try to get one to get one. I just keep thinking that if a couple of those guys get one they might like it and maybe try to do it again.
"But it has been hard for them to get one, so they don't know rather they like it or not. When we made the run, though, we got four baskets off offensive rebounds. One thing I do know, if you don't try to get one, you're probably not going to get one. I thought we tried, Joe Alexander in particular. We are just not very consistent with it. We are not big enough, and if we give them a second shot, we are probably going to give them a third and fourth shot because we are not going to outreach anybody."
West Virginia opens the season Nov. 16 against Arkansas-Monticello. Tip off is at 8 p.m.