The Mountaineers, who relied almost solely on Joe Alexander during a late-season winning streak, used a season-high tying 11 three-pointers, including five from Alex Ruoff, in a 75-65 win here Friday to advance to the NCAA round of 32. Ruoff finished with 21 points and Da'Sean Butler, via a series of jump shots and quick lay-ins, had 19.
The team play was a contrast to the recent stand-and-stare WVU employed. Instead of merely dumping the ball on the block and awaiting Alexander's athleticism, the seventh-seeded Mountaineers found Ruoff off screens and Darris Nichols deep in the corner. Butler flashed to the basket, then used his midrange game. And, when they needed him, Alexander was still there to score 14 points and grab eight boards.
The multi-faceted attack had the transition-oriented Wildcats back on their heels. Arizona finished with a season-low two fast break points and never dictated tempo or pace. It did get within 60-59 inside five minutes left, only to again fail to press the perimeter. Nichols and Ruoff promptly buried back-to-back threes to bury any comeback thoughts.
"Joe has been on fire lately and we have done a bad job of being stagnant and just watching him play," said Ruoff, who also had three steals, including two in the final pair of U of A possessions to seal it. "Tonight we played off him and used him to make open shots. We knew we were going to get the looks. But we went inside first, then took the shots."
Arizona, which has now exited in the first round in 10 of its NCAA-record 24 consecutive berths, never seemed to be able to stay with the more physical Mountaineers. WVU routinely beat the ‘Cats to loose balls and bodied up. They got back on defense and challenged guard play. And they held All-Pac-10 freshman Jerryd Bayless to his fewest points in five games at 11. Chase Budinger led U of A with 23 points, while Jordan Hill had 16 points and 12 rebounds – though just two came in the second half.
The display so frustrated interim head coach Kevin O'Neill that he elected not to attend the post game interview session. Neither did the rest of the team, which lost five of its last seven despite getting several players back from injury. West Virginia, meanwhile, relished in the victory. Head coach Bob Huggins, now 8-1 against O'Neill, pumped his fist coming off the floor. Alexander high-fived a cheerleader. Butler danced around. And why not? WVU gets to continue to do so. It is headed to the second round for the third time in four years to meet two-seed Duke, which survived a scare from Belmont to advance. Game time is 2:10 p.m. Saturday.
"We're looking forward to playing them," Huggins said. "I'd rather have it this way. We made some dumb mistakes that let (Arizona) back in the game. We could have had the game going the way we want to go. But that's why you call it a team."
Besides the threes, West Virginia amassed 16 assists on 28 baskets. It shot 50.9 percent from the floor and 57.9 percent from long range while moving to 23-0 when outshooting foes. Arizona fell to 4-15 when being outshot.
"This is what our team is capable of doing all the time," Ruoff said. "We can be balanced. We made big shots, open shots when we needed them."
Including in the first half, when West Virginia used five threes to build a 25-17 lead with still five minutes left in the period. The Mountaineers had taken just seven threes to that point, and made their first four of the game. The accuracy forced O'Neill to take multiple timeouts to slow momentum while his team crept still further outside. The defensive movement opened back cuts and short range jumpers, and Butler was able to take advantage with six straight Mountaineer points inside the arc. When U of A (19-15) began to sag inside, Ruoff chased the burst with another trey. Back outside again, and Butler hits a putback for a 27-20 lead with little more than three minutes left before the break.
It was that kind of contest for the Mountaineers (25-10). Ahead 31-30 at halftime, they could have led by seven or more despite not having Nichols available for 12-plus minutes because of two early fouls. That forced defensive adjustments, with Joe Mazzulla and Ruoff rotating on Bayless and Nic Wise depending upon the rest of the line-up. Because of the fouls, Huggins even went relatively small at one point, playing Mazzulla, John Flowers, Alexander, Butler and Ruoff, and using a triangle-and-two defense on back-to-back possessions in the latter portions of the opening period. It milked just enough to allow the starters to get back into the game and begin to methodically pull away.
"We talked about it at halftime, staying in the context of what we do," Huggins said. "We stayed in the context of what we do."
And danced with the one who brought them. Bring on the Blue Devils.