The coach, in his first season at his alma mater, has mixed his trademark physical man defense with the Mountaineers already sweet shooting, a combination that overwhelmed Syracuse in an 81-61 win Sunday.
West Virginia, behind 23 points from Alex Ruoff on a career-high seven 3-pointers, snapped Syracuse's eight-game series winning streak and recorded their biggest win over the Orange in 10 years. It was a vast difference from the previous eight games between the teams, when Syracuse physically dominated the Mountaineers and won by an average of 13 points.
"This is the first time I've beaten Syracuse," said Ruoff, a junior. "They get big-time players and we were really proud of our man-to-man defense. In the huddle we were saying they couldn't score on us. We took a lot of pride in it and we got energy from it."
That translated into a season-low in points and first half shooting percentage for Syracuse, the Big East's top-ranked scoring offense. West Virginia forced the Orange – who missed 16 of their first 23 shots – into a season-high 19 turnovers, including 10 in the first-half. That helped build a 35-20 halftime lead bolstered by two Ruoff threes in a key late stretch. It was part of a 23-5 overall run spanning both halves that gave the Mountaineers a 45-23 edge with 16 minutes remaining. Syracuse never got closer than 53-38 afterward, that with five minutes left.
"We thought we could come out and play man," Huggins said. "We did it the whole game and it pushed them out of what they wanted to do. I think our defensive intensity was better."
Darris Nichols tallied 17 points and six assists and Da'Sean Butler and Joe Alexander each scored 13 for West Virginia (12-4, 2-2 Big East). Nichols hit a 3-pointer and jumper as the shot clock wound down on consecutive possessions late in the opening half before Ruoff buried back-to-back threes around a Rick Jackson's lay-in. John Flowers then made a tip-in at the buzzer to help West Virginia carry momentum into the locker room.
The Mountaineers exploded for 10 of the first 14 points of the second half, including threes from Ruoff and Butler and a steal and lay-up from Nichols. That built a 45-28 lead with 16 minutes left that ballooned to as much as 76-50 on another Ruoff three with 5:31 remaining.
"The guys started to lose confidence on both ends of the court," Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim said. "West Virginia did a good job taking advantage of that. We aren't handling the ball or getting people open. Right now we aren't competing."
Syracuse missed 10 of 13 3-point tries. Leading scorer Donte Greene missed six of his first seven threes and scored just 10 points, nine off his season average. Arinze Onuaku led SU (12-5, 2-2) with 15 points.
It was West Virginia's biggest home victory over the Orange in 32 years. West Virginia last defeated Syracuse at home by at least 20 in 1976. The Mountaineers have now won 14 in a row at home. They have yet to win a game by fewer than 14 points, but have lost their first two Big East road games.
"The biggest difference is that we have come out flat on the road without even realizing it," Alexander said. "This game reaffirms our confidence. We have had some lapses, but seeing how it worked against this team I think will motivate us to tee it up against other teams on the schedule."
It was the first meeting between Huggins and Syracuse's Boeheim, who have coached in combined 1,848 games. West Virginia backup quarterback Jarrett Brown sat on the bench. The 6-4, 220-pound junior joined the team after the Mountaineers' win over Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. He will begin practicing Tuesday.
"He is going to come out and we're going to try to get him as caught up as we can," Huggins said. "I think he is gifted as an athlete. Hopefully, he is someone that in a short period of time we can put in the game. Physically, he is ready to play, and my problem is that, physically, the guys at the end of the bench are just not ready physically to play yet. We have to get some guys so much stronger, and I won't have a strength problem with him."