West Virginia came here looking for a marquee non-conference road win to add to what it hopes will be an NCAA tournament-caliber resume come March. The Mountaineers left Columbus on Saturday night with that and then some. Alex Ruoff's 17-point effort led four players in double-figures as West Virginia shot 47.7 percent from the field en route to a 76-48 shellacking of No. 13 Ohio State. An announced crowd of 19,049, many of whom filed out around the four-minute mark, attended the nationally televised matchup.
In their biggest game of the season to date, the Mountaineers put on their best performance on both ends of the court. Defensively, WVU frustrated the previously-undefeated Buckeyes into a woeful day from the field, holding them to just 18 made shots on the afternoon, including an ice-cold seven-of-27 effort in the second half. Ohio State entered the game shooting 46 percent in its nine wins.
Ironically, West Virginia's best stretch of basketball for the season might have come with its most productive player benched due to foul trouble. Leading scorer Da'Sean Butler was whistled for his fourth personal foul at the 14:51 mark with the Mountaineers leading by nine.
"I was afraid we'd never score again," said head coach Bob Huggins. "It's a concern because he does so many things for us."
Huggins's fear was never realized, as WVU picked up its foul-plagued standout to blow the game wide open in his absence. By the time Butler checked back into the game at the 4:37 mark, WVU had increased its advantage to 24 points.
"When that happened, the guys on our team – John (Flowers), Wellington (Smith), Devin (Ebanks) – they all worked hard," said Butler. "I wasn't worried. They came in tonight and they all played tremendous."
Flowers may have only finished with two points, but was active on both ends of the court, grabbing four rebounds and using his length to create problems for the struggling Ohio State offense. Smith finished with nine points and three rebounds, and did a phenomenal job of bodying up 7-0 Ohio State center B.J. Mullens, a McDonald's All-America selection last year.
Mullens was coming off of a 19-point outing on Monday in a win over UNC Asheville, easily his best effort of the season. Against the Mountaineers, however, he was a non-factor, recording as many points (four) as he did fouls. Smith used his athleticism and strength to offset the height and length of the highly-touted freshman center.
"I tried to get physical with him," Smith admitted afterward. "I tried to push him under the basket and get on his legs whenever they lobbed the ball to him. It was a team effort, so everybody had my back. We got on his legs and that was it."
The Mountaineers overcame a quiet start, falling behind by as many as five points early in the first half. Trailing 8-3, Huggins called a 30-second timeout in hopes of slowing OSU's momentum while allowing his players to catch their breath.
"We were really timid," said Huggins of his team's suspect start. "When you are as small as we are, you've got to continually try to put pressure on people. I didn't think our ball pressure was very good. We didn't force them out the way we needed to, and we were just tentative offensively. That's a lot to say in a 30-second timeout."
Whatever the message was that Huggins delivered, it came through loud and clear. WVU emerged from the timeout re-energized, scoring the game's next 11 points to seize the lead for good. Instead of sitting back and not attacking OSU's 1-2-2 match-up zone, the Mountaineers began to attack.
Particularly, freshman point guard Truck Bryant took the proverbial deep breath. The Brooklyn native settlled down after a jittery start and finished with 11 points, three rebounds and two assists. Bryant's ability to regroup after the bad beginning was a microcosm of West Virginia's effort for the game.
"After we went up early in the first (half), they got on their big run and that was it for us," said Ohio State head coach Thad Matta.
Defensively, West Virginia got back to the stingy, suffocating ways that have become the norm in Morgantown under Huggins. Even with another poor performance from three-point land (four-of-18), WVU had its most impressive offensive effort of the season, scoring 44 points in the paint to 26 for OSU and not allowing the Buckeyes to get much of anything on the other end of the court.
Leading by nine at the break, WVU emerged from the locker room looking to thwart any hopes of an Ohio State comeback. It did so early and often, even sans the services of Butler. The Mountaineers held OSU without a field goal for a span of more than seven minutes at one point in the second half.
"We weren't very good," said Matta, who used to square off with Huggins in the annual Crosstown Shootout when he was at Xavier and Huggins roamed the bench at Cincinnati. "It's just that simple. West Virginia had a lot to do with it. We couldn't capitalize on the (early) momentum and really let our guard down on defense.
"In the second (half), we never could overcome their early run," Matta continued. "We just didn't have the bite in us today. We need to learn how to fight back all the time."
Save for the game's opening minutes, fighting was no problem for the Mountaineers. Aside from Flowers, the WVU bench got another blue-collared effort from sophomore forward Cam Thoroughman. The gritty reserve, who has seen his role increased recently as evidenced by his 87 minutes played in West Virginia's past five games, finished with six points and five rebounds.
Even though they gave up some size to the Buckeyes, the Mountaineers outrebounded OSU by a final count of 42-38.
West Virginia will have the next two days off from practice before re-grouping on Tuesday to start preparing for next weekend's Big East opener at Seton Hall.