On a night in which West Virginia's free throw shooting woes were worse than ever, it was ironically a pair of foul shots which ultimately put the Mountaineers over the top. Senior guard Alex Ruoff hit a pair of free throws with 17.7 seconds remaining to give West Virginia an 80-78 win over Ole Miss.
"You dream about being in that position," Ruoff said of his game-clinching free throws. "I had a chance to put Pitt away last year and I didn't do it. I was real eager to come back and do that for my team."
"We've got plays at the foul line we're shooting so bad," head coach Bob Huggins quipped. "We're trying to rebound it at the foul line. We've just got to keep working at it."
After a turnover by Ole Miss point guard Chris Warren, WVU inbounded the ball to junior walk-on Josh "Bird" Sowards, who was immediately fouled. Huggins has often referred to Sowards as the team's best shooter by far. The Scott Depot, W.Va. native missed his first foul shot, but nailed the second to give WVU a two-point cushion.
"I just didn't want to let my team down," Sowards said. "I wanted to make those free throws. In situations, coach just tells me to constantly be ready, especially in a foul situation. We're not shooting the best from the foul line right now because negative is feeding negative. We just have to become a better foul shooting team."
"I was so mad at myself (for missing the first)," he continued. "I just tried to keep my composure and knock down the second shot."
Ruoff overcame another cold shooting performance, going 5-15 from the field to finish with 16 points, none of which were bigger than his final two. Junior forward Da'Sean Butler led the Mountaineers with a career-high 22 points.
Butler came out firing in the first half, scoring 15 points on 7-9 shooting. Butler also had three steals and three rebounds in the first half.
WVU limped to a 40-33 halftime lead, shooting just 5-13 from the charity stripe in the opening frame. The Rebels, by comparison, were 10-12, a big reason why they remained in the game despite giving up 11 second-chance points and 20 points in the paint to the Mountaineers.
The Rebels also frustrated WVU with an aggressive 2-3 zone. The Mountaineers had trouble penetrating the zone via the pass and the dribble, but were able to still score points against it via rebounds and putbacks.
Ole Miss opened the second half with a 10-4 run over the first 3:10, fueled by pint-sized point guard Chris Warren, who swished a 3 and then converted a driving layup after an ill-advised pass by Butler went right into the hands of Murphy Holloway.
Defensively, the Mountaineers had trouble containing Ole Miss swingman David Huertas. The former Florida Gator scored a game-high 23 points on 7-9 shooting from the field. Huertas did, however, have four of the 11 Ole Miss turnovers on the night.
Again in the second half, West Virginia struggled from the line, shooting 11-20.
On the other end of the court, Ole Miss was making the most of WVU's missed opportunities. Huertas continued his hot shooting, nailing a 3 at the 4:46 mark to give the Rebels a 71-66 lead.
The Mountaineers came back thanks in large part due to the play of Flowers. The sophomore forward twice gave WVU the lead inside thee minutes, first with a fast-break layup and again with a 3.
Ruoff's free throws gave the Mountaineers a one-point lead, but Ole Miss still had a chance to win until point guard Chris Warren threw the ball away. Warren's desperation 3 at the buzzer also fell well short of the hoop.
For the game, WVU finished with 22 offensive rebounds. Butler led the way with seven, and finished with 10 total boards. Despite their outside shooting struggles, WVU was able to go inside – mostly to Butler – to come away with its biggest win of the season.
"We didn't really want to get into a three-point shooting contest with them," Butler said. "We wanted to do what we know how to do. We practice defense and rebounding. Good teams don't do what they can't do, they do what they can do. That's what we did tonight."
Any way you slice it, a win is a win, and this one is big for West Virginia, particularly on the heels of a frustrating loss in Las Vegas to Kentucky.
"We're going to clean stuff up," Ruoff said. "We got sloppy on offense and couldn't get a basket, but that's a hostile environment. That's a quality win. We'll get better as the season goes along, but just to get the ‘W' and get out of here, that's great for us."