The Mountaineers jumped to a 33-9 lead via a 22-0 run, then held on late as Draelon Burns hit seven 3-pointers – including five in the second half – to rally the Blue Demons to as close as seven in the final two minutes. But, as it had all game, WVU maintained the edge with a mix of timely scoring and defense to hold on.
Burns, who finished with a game-high 31 points, hit his final three to pull DePaul within 76-69 with 1:40 left. Alex Ruoff, who led WVU with 22 points, answered with his fourth trey to push the lead back to 10. It never slipped below nine again as West Virginia hit four free throws down the stretch to clinch the must-have. The victory was a key for the Mountaineers (20-8, 9-6 Big East), who hold onto sixth place in the league with three games remaining before the postseason begins.
"Anytime you come into this building and wins it's a good win," said WVU head coach Bob Huggins, who is 27-8 all-time against DePaul, but just 10-5 on the road. "Three to go. We have to keep doing what we are doing and win on the road. I think winning like this on the road late, people take notice of that."
They certainly would have with a loss. West Virginia's 22-0 run midway through the first half seemingly put any doubts on ice. The first three baskets came inside, an area where the Mountaineers aren't prolific. The 6-0 burst more than doubled when Darris Nichols and Ruoff hit threes around Joe Alexander's jumper. Alexander then banked another shot in before Nichols drove and scored. A bench technical on DePaul led to a pair of Ruoff free throws. Mazzulla finished the run with another foul shot just seconds later for the 33-9 lead with 8:16 left in the opening half.
DePaul to that point had gone more than seven minutes without scoring. It committed seven turnovers during the stretch, but did get within 44-29 by the break. Burns then hit three 3-pointers over the initial minutes of the second half, including one sep-back shot with a defender in his face, and it was again a game at 51-44 with less than five minutes played. The Demons continued to push, getting within five points twice before the midway mark.
"They kind of lull you to sleep then get it up and down the floor and get a three or get a basket in transition," Huggins said. "They are physical. They absolutely out-physicaled us on the glass. We made the plays when we had to make the plays."
Indeed. The lead bounced between 10 and 12 points eight times before the media timeout inside eight minutes, when WVU led 66-56. Burns canned another three to get the score within 10, only to have the Demons miss four straight free throws as West Virginia extended the edge to 74-60 on John Flowers' dunk with approximately four minutes left. That ended a series of baskets in which six Mountaineers combined to score 14 points to hold onto the lead.
Alexander totaled 17 points and Da'Sean Butler tallied his second career double-double with 14 points and 13 rebounds. Burns finished with 31, 25 of which came in the second half. Dar Tucker had 15 points and Will Walker came off the bench to score 13. The Blue Demons could have been in far better position to win had it not made just 14 of 33 at the free throw line (42 percent). They missed 12 of their first 16 in the opening period for the worst half of the season. WVU shot 52 percent from the floor for the game, but made just five of 15 from 3-point range.
The victory marks the ninth in as many Big East games when West Virginia scores more than 60 points. It clinches a fourth consecutive 20-win season. The last time WVU posted four or more straight years of 20 win seasons was a seven-year run from 1981-87. Huggins moved into a 12th-place tie all-time with Lou Henson for most NCAA Division I 20-win seasons with 20. DePaul (10-17, 5-10), hosting West Virginia for the first time ever, becomes just the second team in the last 16 games to score more than 70 against the Mountaineers. It has now lost four in a row and eight of the last nine.
Note: Ruoff's four 3-pointers move him into a fourth-place tie on the all-time WVU single-season list with Marsalis Basey (1993-94), who made 78. West Virginia returns to action on Sat. March 1 at Noon at Connecticut.