Darris Nichols and Alex Ruoff buried back-to-back three-pointers and Joe Alexander canned another to jumpstart a second half run that rallied the Mountaineers past the Blue Devils and into the Sweet 16 with a 73-67 win. WVU had missed all six of its outside shots in the first half, yet trailed by only five. Once it finally got hot, the Duke lead was put on ice.
The trio of treys helped turned a 34-29 halftime deficit into a 43-40 lead with 13 minutes left that only continued to balloon. It reached seven points just 90 seconds later, and the Blue Devils began to wilt under the rebounding and defensive pressure. Duke was both outworked and outhustled throughout the final period, and when Ruoff drilled a three from the wing with less than five minutes to play, West Virginia's lead reached 11, and the noise inside the Verizon Center reached a fever pitch. The Devils never got closer than the final score in failing to reach the Sweet 16 for just the second time in 11 seasons.
"Going into halftime only down five, we felt good," said Joe Mazzulla, who finished with 13 points, third best behind Joe Alexander's 22 and Ruoff's 17, in among the finest games of his career. "We just wanted to hit shots, and we started to."
And how. After Nichols' three to start the second half, Ruoff tossed in a prayer from the right corner as the shot clock wound down. When the shot swished through, the game was tied at 37 and the momentum began to build. Duke never again scored consecutive buckets until a pair of meaningless shots at the end. Much of it was that the Devils were often one and done on the offensive end, WVU managing a 47-27 edge in rebounding, including a whopping 19 on offense that led to 17 second chance points.
"We noticed Duke gave up a lot of offensive rebounds," Mazzula said. "Coach emphasized it, that if we got there we should have the ball and score. Then we just needed to take care of the ball. We obviously did."
The sophomore, lauded by Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski as "a mini-Jason Kidd," recorded his first career double-double, adding 11 rebounds to his 13 points. He also had eight assists and played excellent defense on both DeMarcus Nelson and Greg Paulus.
"For awhile there, he got so many offensive rebounds," Krzyzewski said. "If he would have been on a face-off, he would have won every one. If there was a scrum or a loose ball, there's No. 3. He's the story, the difference-maker this game."
Duke was led by Gerald Henderson's 18 points. Jon Scheyer and Paulus added 16 and 13, respectively, while DeMarcus Nelson scored just six. Scheyer, Paulus and Nelson combined to miss 11 of 14 three-pointers, part of a five-for-22 effort overall. West Virginia (26-10) made only four, but they were among the four biggest shots of the game.
"In four of their five losses, they had made five or fewer threes," said WVU head coach Bob Huggins, who has the most first-year wins of any coach in school history. "We knew that was a key."
When WVU had missed from long range, it managed to fall behind – but never out of the game. The Mountaineers withstood a 14-0 Duke run early in the game. The Mountaineers scored the first four points, then were burned, both by the foe and the officials. A pair of Paulus three-pointers were sandwiched around consecutive baskets inside. The Blue Deviled led 10-4 at that point, though were helped by a phantom block call on Wellington Smith – who started in place of Jamie Smalligan per Smalligan's request – on a superiorly set screen. Duke also benefited from getting a handful of chippy calls to get into the bonus with more than 10 minutes remaining.
Huggins had seen enough well earlier than that. He argued the block call, among others, and pushed the conversation during a timeout. He was slapped with a technical, and Duke hit the two free throws to move ahead 12-4. A final pair of shots from the line pushed the lead to 14-4 with 14 minutes remaining. West Virginia battled back to get within 18-15 on Alexander's two baskets and John Flowers' lay-in. That essentially held until the rally.
"They made some shots and you could see their confidence building up a little bit," Henderson said. "We didn't, and the caught up to us. We just didn't make plays on key possessions."
That was the story of the game, West Virginia continually making plays and battling back, showing a reserve and nerve Duke lacked. The Blue Devils had finished as runner-up to national title favorite North Carolina, yet wasn't a match for the Big East's fifth-place team. The Mountaineers have now won seven in a row against ACC schools, the latest by banishing the team with the best NCAA Tournament winning percentage of all-time. WVU reaches the Sweet 16 for the fourth straight NCAA Tournament it has participated in.
"Playing in the Big East Tournament makes every other tournament feel like nothing," Alexander said "You play against the best competition in the country. There is nothing you are afraid of. People saw that today when we played an ACC school and not only held our own, but went well above that. Duke's a great team, and they'd fit in well in the Big East. But they certainly would not dominate. The top six or seven are on par with Duke."