After the Herd's Darryl Merthie tied the game at 64-64 with 31 seconds left on his three free throws resulting from a John Flowers' foul – just the last of a 52 fouls that marred the contest – WVU brought the ball over halfcourt and called timeout. It sent Joe Mazzulla, Darris Nichols, Alex Ruoff, Nate Sowers and Butler onto the floor. It was the best lineup the Mountaineers could muster after both Wellington Smith and Joe Alexander, who did play for 25 minutes despite a groin injury, fouled out by the 1:53 mark. The first four spread the court to allow Butler to do what he does best: Create one-on-one. He delivered a jumper just inside the foul line for a 66-64 lead with 5.6 seconds left. It was the last of the game's 43 field goals, nine less than the number of fouls called.
"Coach asked me if I could handle the ball in that situation and I said yes," Butler said. "If he asks me to do it, I will do it. He said to go get the ball with 10 seconds left, and if I didn't have a shot or someone was open, get it to them."
He didn't need to. Butler shook the defender, then forced the ball up through a crowd close to the basket. It rattled in for the lead, and the Mountaineers – having had difficulty with MU's ball screens – quickly setup in surprise a triangle-and-two defense. Nichols and Ruoff guarded MU's best shooters, though that ploy quickly dissolved into a man defense as Marshall pushed upcourt. Butler slapped the ball away from Merthie, and it bounced back out past the 3-point line as time expired.
The sophomore finished with a team-high 18 points, but missed eight of 13 free throws, part of a WVU's 11 of 28 performance from the line that allowed Marshall to creep back into the game after the Mountaineers led by as many as 14, that in the first half. There were seven consecutive possessions in which fouls were called in the second half; Butler's jumper was West Virginia's lone field goal over the final 6:30 and one of just two in the final eight-plus minutes.
"We were supposed to win the game by a lot, and we didn't," Butler said. "We have more work to do, but that might be good. We won't go into the Georgetown game with big heads. We'll get back to work."
The Mountaineers (15-4) threatened to break away midway through the second half when Mazzulla drilled a three as the shot clock wound down and Alexander and Smith dunked for a 48-36 lead with 12 minutes left. But over the next four minutes of play, Alexander, Nichols and Smith would each pick up their fourth foul, putting Marshall in the double bonus for the remainder of the game and taking away WVU's main floor presence and its most effective interior threats.
The Herd (10-7) made 21 of 33 from the line and shot 12 free throws in just 2 ½ minutes of play during its rally. It made nine as part of a 12-4 run that got it within 57-52 with 6:46 remaining. Leading scorer Mark Dorris had three fouls throughout before being whistled twice in just 20 seconds, fouling out with 5:37 to go. It was a huge blow, the guard having scored 20 points and been the lone player to pace the Herd through multiple rough shooting stretches. West Virginia reached the bonus on the Dorris foul out. The officials continued to whistle a close game, once calling three fouls in a nearly comical five seconds that had six free throws.
"You might as well throw it out of bounds (with how WVU was shooting it)," head coach Bob Huggins said. "If you throw it out of bunds, at least you can set you defense. We were banging them badly and throwing them everywhere. Nobody knew where they were going and that leads to runouts."
The teams did trade baskets until Merthie and Matt Walls drained a 3-pointers around Butler's pair of free throws to pull Marshall within 62-59 with 3:30 left. Alexander fouled out two minutes later, with WVU leading 63-59. It held a 64-61 edge when Butler missed a free throw. Flowers rebounded the miss, then failed to convert either of his two chances as he was grabbed. The freshman then fouled Merthie, who also scored 20 points, on the 3-point try that setup the final seconds. His free throws completed the 19-point rally.
"It is hard to get in a rhythm when the game is topped that much," said Ruoff, a junior who finished with 11 points and a career-high 11 rebounds for his first double-double. "They made a lot of touchy calls but you have to adapt to it. We have some guys that are pretty good shooters that are making less than 50 percent. "If you are a decent shooter, there is no reason you shouldn't be a good foul shooter. The crowd was into it, but it's something you need to do. They need to put some extra work in after practice to get better for the team's sake. We almost let one slip away tonight."
The teams combined for 61 free throws, the most for either this season. West Virginia hit 41.4 percent from the field, but the majority of that was bolstered by its 13 of 27 effort in the first half. It made 11 of 31 in the second; MU hit nine of 22 in the second half, but no other players besides Merthie and Dorris reached double figures.
"Our bench is very weak and when we get three or four guys, especially Mark Dorris, foul out, and some of these other guys got in foul trouble, we had to change everything on the go," Marshall head coach Donnie Jones said. "It's like basketball camp. You get five guys, put them out there and you make up plays up as the game goes on. We didn't make shots but we played hard defensively and kept ourselves in the game."
Nichols added 10 points and Mazzulla tallied a game-high six assists. That was half of the Mountaineers' 12 against 14 turnovers. Marshall had five assists and 10 turnovers, and was outrebounded 45-38; WVU had 17 offensive boards.
The game was even for the first three minutes until West Virginia used four 3-pointers in an 18-4 run to lead 23-9 with eight minutes left in the first half. Butler jumpstarted the push with a trey from the right wing. Ruoff hit the next two threes on consecutive possessions as the Mountaineers' ball movement and screening began to wear on the Herd. The four threes in six tries was WVU's best outside shooting start to a Capital Classic in at least the last five seasons; it had consistently shot worse in the Civic Center than any other venue before the run.
The game's first physicality showed during the push. Smith and Baines were called for offsetting technical fouls after a trio of players from both teams exchanged words. A MU player shoved Smith, who responded with more verbal jousting. Ruoff broke up the scuffle, then broke MU's spirit by buring his third three of the half after the stoppage in play threatened to thwart building WVU momentum. The teams played essentially evenly over the last eight minutes for the 37-27 Mountaineer lead at the break, the first time West Virginia had led at the half in four years.
Marshall, now just 1-5 away from Huntington, missed 12 of its first 13 shots and managed just a 31.3 percent performance from the floor in the first half. That included a two-of-12 effort from behind the arc. West Virginia made 13 of 27, including six of 10 from 3-point range, and had a rebounding edge of seven. Smith had three blocks in the first 20 minutes.
West Virginia now leads the series 26-10, including 15-4 in Charleston. It has won nine of the last 11. WVU is also 51-19 in the Civic Center and 59-21 in Charleston overall. It has won 41 of its last 49 versus nonconference teams in the regular season.