Joe Alexander matched a career-high with 32 points as West Virginia avenged an earlier defeat to its rival with a 76-62 win over Pitt on Monday. The Panthers beat West Virginia 55-54 on Feb. 7 on a last-second 3-pointer in a game the Mountaineers felt they should have won. Alexander made sure it wasn't that close this time – and kept WVU in the chase to finish sixth in the Big East.
The junior using a series of jumpers and moves in the paint to match a career high set against No. 15 Connecticut on Saturday which followed a talk with head coach Bob Huggins at halftime of that game.
"You don't really have a heart-to-heart with coach Huggins," said Alexander, who became the first Mountaineer since Greg Jones (1980-83) to score 30-plus points in consecutive games. "He basically told me to get my butt in gear."
Accomplished. Alexander throttled Pit by scoring eight points in a 10-0 push spanning both halves that proved the deciding stretch. With West Virginia ahead 40-30 at the break, Alexander scored six consecutive points in the paint for a 47-30 edge just two minutes into the second half. The display was surprising considering Pitt, the best rebounding team in the conference, was expected to control the interior. That never materialized, and the lead ballooned to as much as 65-42 with nine minutes left on an Alex Ruoff 3-pointer and Darris Nichols' driving lay-up. Pitt, in losing for the fourth time in six games, never got closer than 15 points after.
"I thought we attacked their man really well," Huggins said. "Then they went zone and we attacked that well. Then they pressed and we broke that and got Alex a three. They are doing things now that they could have been (earlier). They have been just great to coach. Alexander came back and played with confidence and he is getting better and better. It was a great team effort over a good program and one that is very well-coached."
Pitt pulled within 15 at 72-57 with three minutes left and seemed poised to at least make a run similar to what it did in its last outing versus Syracuse, when it rallied from down 11 inside four minutes. But Alexander drew two fouls on DeJuan Blair, the Panthers' leading scorer, to score four points and foul him out with WVU in control at 76-57 inside two minutes. From there the celebration was on, Huggins pulling Nichols, Jamie Smalligan and Ted Talkington to standing ovations from 13,960 on Senior Night.
Nichols, the school's career leader in minutes and games played at 134 and counting, added 17 points in his final home game. Ruoff scored 17. Pitt was led by Levance Fields' 15 points. Sam Young added 13, but fouled out midway through the second half. Pitt was outrebounded 35-30 and never appeared comfortable challenging Alexander or WVU inside, allowing 30 points in the paint.
The win significantly boosts West Virginia's NCAA resume. The Mountaineers (21-9, 10-7 Big East) now move into sole possession of sixth placed in the league ahead of Pitt (21-9, 9-8). Both teams have one regular season game left, WVU traveling to St. John's and Pitt hosting DePaul. If West Virginia wins, it clinches the sixth spot and will play the final day one game in the Big East Tournament.
"Other teams they are talking have not done what we have, playing the No. 1 team (Tennessee) to two and Georgetown tough," said Huggins, who finally beat the Panthers in his fourth try as a coach. "Then Pitt and this game."
It was an impressive display for a team that was largely given up for dead after the losses at Pitt and Villanova. The Mountaineers ripped their rival in nearly every area, taking control before the half and continuing to handle anything Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon tried, including a 2-3 zone and a press that was snapped in remarkable fashion. Down 60-42, Pitt went into a trap press only to watch Joe Mazzulla take an inbounds pass and feed John Flowers at midcourt. The freshman raced down with a two on one as Ruoff retreated to the corner. A kick pass to the wing, and Ruoff swished home a trey for a 63-42 advantage with just 10 minutes remaining. Nichols then canned a driving layup for the biggest lead of the game at 65-42 a minute later.
Pitt then began to become frustrated. Fields was stuffed on a drive, and instead of rallying to play defense, decided to punch the floor and complain while jogging the length of the floor. Young fouled out soon after, and threw a brief tantrum as well. The romp was on, and the crowd – whose numbers give WVU an average of more than 10,000 on the season to rank in the top four all-time – began hoisting signs in response to Pitt's mention of its football upset and previous basketball win. The victory, the first over the Panthers in five tries, gives WVU an all-time lead of 93-82 in the 175-game series and a fourth straight Senior Day victory.
At the half, WVU had already forced 10 turnovers while committing nine itself with four by Alexander. The forward did not turn the ball over in the second period. The two teams were nearly identical in every category with the Mountaineers shooting 48 percent to Pitt's 44 and holding a 17-16 edge on the boards. West Virginia made its final five free throws of the half after missing four of its first nine free throws. Neither team scored more than six consecutive points, while there were two ties and six lead changes, all in the initial eight-plus minutes. Pitt missed all four of its threes; the Mountaineers made four of 12. The Panthers drop to 5-7 on the road this season, 3-6 in conference.