The Mountaineers, minus power forward Joe Alexander, pieced together a key 19-5 run to take the lead for good while scoring 31 of the game's final 42 points over the last 14 minutes to seal their first Big East road victory. Ahead just 44-43, WVU took over by putting Kentrell Gransberry – who had dominated inside and scored the first 13 USF second half points – on the line. He failed to convert, missing nine of 11, then largely failed to touch the ball when West Virginia, after trying Jamie Smalligan and Wellington Smith inside defensively, had Joe Mazzulla front Gransberry while switching from a man set into a zone. That forced the ball away from the center, and the Mountaineers immediately made an 11-3 run for a 44-41 lead with eight minutes left.
"He is a load down there," WVU head coach Bob Huggins said. "We changed defenses and put Joe Mazzulla on him to front him. Thank goodness he didn't make any free throws. That gave us a chance. After he went on a flurry to start the half, he didn't touch the ball much."
Darris Nichols, who tied Da'Sean Butler with a team-high 15 points, jumpstarted the run with a 3-pointer. Mazzulla then hit a trio of free throws for a 50-45 lead with five minutes left. It was the biggest lead of the game to that point, and eventually built to 59-45 on Mazzulla's driving scoop lay-up. He was fouled and finished the three-point play for the five-point lead with 2:22 remaining.
Jesus Vardejo's three pulled the Bulls within 11, only to have the Mountaineers make 10 of 12 free throws down the stretch to seal the game and hand USF (10-9, 1-5 Big East) its fifth consecutive league loss. Gransberry scored a game-high 22 points. Dominique Jones added 11. Ruoff scored 14 for West Virginia (14-4, 4-2), and continued to find the open man even when he struggled with his shot. Mazzulla added a career-high tying 11; Smith had nine.
"When Joe comes into the game, somethings going to happen," Huggins said. "It might be good or bad, but something is going to happen."
Gransberry's initial 13 points of the second half gave the Bulls a 38-33 lead with 14 minutes left. WVU was paced by Butler's nine during the stretch; the sophomore also grabbed a career-high 12 rebounds for his first career double-double. Besides Butler, the Mountaineers were aided by a technical called on the South Florida bench after an assistant coach argued an offensive foul call on Gransberry after he elbowed Smith. It was his third foul; Ruoff hit both shots for the three-point edge. That began the landslide of points after the teams had battled to four ties and four lead changes over the first 33 minutes of play.
West Virginia started poorly for the second straight game, making just three of 13 from the floor. It had missed 17 of its first 23 shots to trail 25-18 when Gransberry scored inside with 5:24 remaining in the opening period. South Florida switched its man defense to a 1-3-1 zone early in the game, then went to an amorphous match-up look that confused the Mountaineers. WVU had open shots in a variety of spots, but was hesitant to take solid chances. That was compounded by the lack of floor leadership when Nichols was out of the game and led to the seven-point deficit, which could have ballooned to double figures at the half if Gransberry did not pick up his second foul on a charge into Smalligan with four minutes left.
His benching allowed the Mountaineers to go back to a man defense. Minus Alexander – out with a groin injury aggravated on a dunk attempt against St. John's – WVU had failed to guard Gransberry, with the 6-9, 270-pounder making four of six shots. Without his looming presence, West Virginia tightened the defense and created shots inside and out. It resulted in an 8-0 run over the final three minutes for a surprising 26-25 lead at the break. Nichols led the push by hitting a pair of 3-pointers around two Butler free throws, the latter coming with just nine seconds left. USF turned the ball over with 1.4 seconds remaining before Butler missed a baseball throw from beyond half court at time expired.
South Florida had made 11 of 25 shots, while WVU, via a late push, made eight of 27, including four of 14 from 3-point range. The Bulls finished 22 of 49; they missed 1 of 15 free throws. West Virginia rallied to make 20 of 52 from the field and 22 of 26 from the foul line while assisting on all but seven baskets. Both teams had 35 rebounds.
The Mountaineers are now 3-1 all-time against South Florida, including beating the Bulls in their first ever Big East game. WVU, in the midst of a stretch in which it plays four of six games on the road, has won five of its last six in the state of Florida. Huggins advanced to 15-1 all-time versus USF. All but this contest came when he was at Cincinnati.
Jarrett Brown, WVU's 6-4, 220-pound backup quarterback who recently joined the basketball team, entered at the 11:50 mark to provide more interior strength. Freshman John Flowers made his first collegiate start in place of Alexander. He scored five points.