The Mountaineers overcame sluggishness and a lackadaisical approach at times to move to 22-9 overall and 11-7 in Big East play. The victory assures at least a sixth-place league finish, though WVU could move as high as fifth if Syracuse beats Marquette. That scenario didn't appear likely midway through the second half. St. John's used a 9-0 run via a trio of 3-pointers to rally from an 11-point deficit and eventually take the lead at 58-57 with six minutes left. The Red Storm led by as many as four inside 90 seconds before West Virginia tied it with free throws by Alexander and Joe Mazzulla's coast-to-coast lay-up with just 5.5 seconds left.
Alexander scored seven of the final nine WVU points in regulation, then secured the lead for good in overtime with two free throws and a three-point play off a lay-up for a 73-68 edge with three minutes left. The Red Storm never got closer than that as the Mountaineers held on by making eight of their next 10 free throws, part of a 11-for-15 effort in the extra period. West Virginia made 30 of 42 foul shots overall.
"Joe was really good again, made big shots, made free throws. We are going to throw it to him in the halfcourt and let him do what he does," head coach Bob Huggins said. "I ran everything I know to iso him. I am about out of plays. They knew it was going there, they just didn't know where he was coming from. Joe Alexander is the guy I want when the game is on the line."
Alexander has tallied 93 points in the final three games, and was one point off of eclipsing a 25-plus year school record for consecutive 30-point games. His emergence has coincided with that of West Virginia, which would seem to be in the NCAAs after reeling off four victories in its final five games. This one didn't come easily until the extra period, when WVU outscored St. John's 15-6 to win 22 games for the fourth straight season. It was just the second close game (Marshall) the Mountaineers clinched, with defeats to No. 10 Georgetown, No. 4 Tennessee, Oklahoma and then-No. 25 Pitt by a combined 10 points.
"Twice during the game when we made a run I said now is the time we can put them away; Take good shots and get good looks," Huggins said. "Then they make a run. I said I am never saying again for you guys to put people away. Let's just do what we do."
Which is mixing in other players with Alexander, who had a double-double with 10 rebounds. Da'Sean Butler also doubled deuced with 18 points and 10 rebounds, while Alex Ruoff added 15 points. Larry Wright hit six of nine 3-pointers to lead St. John's with 20 points, while Anthony Mason, Jr. had 17 before Alexander fouled him out just one minute into overtime. That was part of three Red Storm players to foul out.
West Virginia was ahead 37-30 at the half, a lead which held through the midway point of the latter period until the SJU nine-point spurt led by Wright's threes. The Johnnies took their first lead, 58-57, of the second half on a Wright 3-pointer with 5:54 left. WVU made just two field goals the rest of regulation, but did make all six of its free throws to keep pace. That followed a 50-39 Mountaineer advantage that nearly matched the game-high of 12 points. After the SJU run, the teams essentially played evenly the rest of the way with Mazzulla forcing the overtime with his last-second hoop.
St. John's had seemingly had one last chance at the end of regualtion. It inbounded and failed to get a shot off, but the officials pulled a USA-Soviet Union Olympic act and allowed it to re-inbound the ball because of a clock issue. Mason, Jr. missed a shot that very nearly fell in after rattling around on the rim. That came with 0.3 seconds left after the lay-in, a runner that mimicked a similar shot by former point guard J.D. Collins, whose buzzer-beating drive and lay-in against the Red Storm triggered a run to the Elite Eight in 2005.
"I told him he would have a free lane to the basket, don't rush it," Huggins said. "Five seconds is a lot of time. I wanted him to get it on the run. That's why I had (the inbounds) thrown it to Wellington (Smith), to get it on the run. We had to get him turned loose and with his left hand, that's why we threw it to him on the left side."
Alexander took over from there, spinning and dunking on West Virginia's second overtime possession. Mason, Jr. grabbed an arm for his fifth foul and Alexander made both shots. Wright then air-balled a three, and Alexander drove by a defender and hit the hoop with a resulting foul shot. The five consecutive points pushed the edge to 73-68 inside three minutes. The forward also rebounded off a free throw miss by SJU on its next trip which segued into a Smith dunk for a seven-point lead that ended any threat.
West Virginia was ahead 23-12 little more than midway through the opening half via a 15-3 run, its biggest of the game. Ruoff and Alexander combined for 11 points in the push, attacking with the 3-point shot and Alexander's ability inside. St. John's answered by ripping off 13 of the next 14 points to lead 25-24 with five minutes left in the period. The Red Storm hit a trio of threes, including the final one by Mason, Jr. before his finish off the drive ended the run. WVU scored 13 of the last 18 points to lead 37-30 at the break.
The Mountaineers were a red-hot 12 of 21 from the floor (57 percent) in the first half, with Ruoff and Alexander scoring nine and eight points, respectively. WVU made five of seven 3-pointers, their only makes of the game. Just five Mountaineers took recorded shots – Mazzulla went to the line twice for being hacked while in the process of shooting – while WVU had 12 assists, one for each of its baskets. It finished making 24 of 47 shots from the field, thought just five of those were threes, showing a newfound ability to score inside when needed.
The win is the eighth consecutive over St. John's (11-19, 5-13), which has lost seven of its last eight games and 13 of the last 17 overall. SJU fell to just 1-6 at Madison Square Garden. West Virginia has won eight of its last 10 inside the World's Most Famous Arena, and will be back there on Wednesday in first-round Big East action, likely either in the 2 p.m. game as a five-seed or the 9 p.m. contest if it is seeded sixth. No other teams can catch the Mountaineers now, as Pitt, Villanova, Syracuse and Cincinnati have all lost at least eight league games. If Syracuse beats Marquette later today in the Carrier Dome, WVU finishes fifth via winning the head-to-head match-up with the Golden Eagles, who are now 11-6 in Big East play.
"I would assume it will be a lot different (in the Big East Tournament)," Huggins said of the atmosphere. "There were a lot of people here disguised as seats. I'm a huge Orange fan for this day only. Before I leave West Virginia, I want to hang a championship banner in there because the good folks deserve it."