Down 48-47 with less than four minutes left, Da'Sean Butler's putback and tip-in gave the Mountaineers the lead for good. The forward then provided the anchor to hang on, both to the 58-53 win and what's now a surefire NCAA bid.
Butler – who finished with 17 points and nine rebounds – grabbed a pair of boards in the final minutes. One of the rebounds led to two late free throws by Joe Alexander for a four-point lead at 54-50 that sealed the game inside a minute. The other stove off another interior offensive attack. It doesn't read like much, but was among the lone flashes of hustle and grit badly lacking overall. The plays were a microcosm of what should have been for West Virginia, which dodged a lackadaisical effort and poor outside shooting to advance to the second round of the Big East Tournament and its third NCAA postseason in four years.
"I was just trying to get inside the best way I could," Butler said. "It was close and they were playing hard. I tried to do what my team wanted me to do; Get a rebound, make an extra pass, anything to help. We wanted to try to outwork them. They are a great rebounding team, but we are very good for our size."
All 6-7 of it. Because it was only Butler who truly bailed out West Virginia. Alexander scored 22 points and had six rebounds and six assists, but committed six turnovers. Darris Nichols misfired on five of six shots and was hesitant to attack the rim. Alex Ruoff failed to convert any of his first six three-pointers, part of a team three for 15 effort from behind the arc overall. The Mountaineers committed 17 turnovers, were outrebounded on the offensive glass and didn't match Providence's desire. But they did do the only thing that mattered: Win.
The victory gives WVU (23-9, 12-7 Big East) its 12th league decision and moved its RPI, prior to any 7 p.m. games, to 31st in the nation. It also gives the Mountaineers eight wins in their final 12 games, with a chance for another Thursday at 2 p.m. versus No. 4 seed Connecticut in the quarterfinals.
"I don't know of any team that has won 11 games in this league and is not an NCAA Tournament team," head coach Bob Huggins said. "The reality is that if it's the 34 best (at-large) teams, put them in our league and see how many they win. This has got to be as hard of a league as there is in the country. There are not any days off. That is the difference. In some other leagues you can't not come to play and win. It's hard to do that here."
West Virginia tried, becoming confused by head coach Tim Welsh's recent move of Geoff McDermott from power and small forward to point guard. That was made following the last loss at WVU, when the Mountaineers throttled PC 80-53. The Friars used the match-up advantage – McDermott is 6-8 and the best team passer – to roll the junior off screens or allow him to drive versus smaller defenders. It helped Providence reel off wins over Cincinnati and UConn in its final three games to make the postseason.
Welsh stayed with the look, and the Friars responded by scoring 16 points in the paint during an 18-4 run in the middle of the opening half. McDermott routinely broke off screens to create shots or deliver the ball to cutters. It proved costly, as the Mountaineers scrambled to adjust only to be out of position for rebounds. After McDermott's free throws and a Randall Hanke's dunk, PC was ahead 24-15 with 6:36 left in the period.
The defensive problems spilled into the offensive sets. West Virginia failed to create any pace or flow and had difficulty holding onto the ball. Until Butler's jumper with 6:10 left pulled them within 24-17 – and stopped an eight-plus minute stretch with just a single field goal – it appeared Providence would assume control into the break. But Alexander followed Butler's score with a jump shot, spurring an 11-2 closing stretch that tied the game at 28 entering halftime.
"It's hard when your power forward plays point," Huggins said. "We are fortunate because we have (Alexander) and Wellington (Smith), and I don't know that it affects us as much as it would other people because we have guys who are very similar. … We had all kinds of opportunities to make shots early and didn't."
The teams played evenly throughout a second period that had nine lead changes. West Virginia, now 21-0 when outshooting foes, never led by more than three until the late push. The Mountaineers have now won nine of their last 12 at Madison Square Garden and beaten Providence (15-16, 6-13) in eight of the last nine meetings.
"That's a tough way to lose," said Welsh, whose team was led by Weyinmi Efejuku's 12 points. "It comes own to a shot or rebound or turnover. They rebound and put one in. It is who makes plays at the end."
Note: Nichols tied Seldon Jefferson (1995-97) for ninth on the all-time school assists list with 386. Jefferson had 386 assists in just 88 games, an average of 4.4 per contest. Nichols has played in a school-record 136 games. It was Alexander's 10th straight game in double figures.