At the outset of a Big East journey which will undoubtedly be full of tests, West Virginia has passed its first. Playing for the first time in a week, the Mountaineers got a well-balanced scoring effort, led by Da'Sean Butler and Alex Ruoff with 18 points apiece, en route to easily dispatching host Seton Hall, 92-66.
WVU (11-2, 1-0) led by nine points at halftime, before pouring it on in the second half, outscoring the Pirates by a hefty 52-35 margin over the final 20 minutes.
While Butler and Ruoff had the most points, it was the play of sophomore forward John Flowers that lifted West Virginia from the doldrums of sluggish play early in the first half. Flowers provided a much-needed spark off the Mountaineer bench, scoring 12 first-half points and breathing some life into a WVU team which came out of the gate sloppy against the Pirates.
After Seton Hall standout Jeremy Hazell pulled Seton Hall to within a bucket on his 3 at the 8:04 mark of the first half, the Mountaineers promptly went on an 8-0 run to give themselves a little bit of breathing room. Seton Hall would get as close as three points on a foul shot by Eugene Harvey, but WVU closed the first half with 6-0 run, capped by a rebound and putback by freshman forward Kevin Jones just before the halftime horn to give the Mountaineers their nine-point advantage heading into the locker room.
Led by Flowers, the WVU bench outscored that of Seton Hall by a dominant 16-0 count in the first half.
In recent weeks, West Virginia has shown the ability to put teams away in the second half, and such was the case again on Saturday in Newark. The closest Seton Hall managed to get was within six points as Butler, Ruoff and company stepped on the proverbial throat of the Pirates on their way to the first win of 2009.
Ruoff was the focal point of the Seton Hall defense for much of the afternoon, but still found ways to score points despite going a rather pedestrian four-of-six from the field.
"I think that shows how much the kid has matured," West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins said of his lone senior, who was a perfect eight-of-eight from the foul line. "He now will attack the basket. He'll get to the foul line. He didn't get to the foul line before, and I think he's done a heck of a job expanding his game. He and Da'Sean."
Butler, who always seems to shine when playing in or near his native Newark, was brilliant yet again. Of his 18 points, 14 came in the second half as the Mountaineers pulled away. The junior narrowly missed a double-double, finishing with nine rebounds. He also handed out a game-high five assists.
Flowers led the dominating effort from the WVU bench, finishing with 14 points. Perhaps more surprising was his four-of-four performance from the foul line. Flowers, who entered the game shooting 24 percent from the charity stripe, tweaked his form in the week off. Kevin Jones added 12 points in 13 minutes. In all, West Virginia's reserves outscored the SHU subs 33-10.
"They gave us good minutes," Huggins said of the second unit. "Cam played 13 minutes, Kevin Jones played 13 minutes. We got 26 minutes from John Flowers, who played hurt with a sprained ankle."
The week off following last weekend's pasting of Ohio State in Columbus looked to have certainly helped the healing process for freshman forward Devin Ebanks, who had been hobbled with injuries to his ankle and knee. Ebanks finished with 10 points, nine rebounds, four assists, three blocks and two steals.
The weeklong layoff was the second in a three-week span for the Mountaineers, who enjoyed a similar break between wins over Duquesne and Miami of Ohio. With the extended break, Huggins was curious to see how his team would come out against the Pirates, who lost their league opener 100-76 at Syracuse on Tuesday.
"I hoped we were ready to go," said Huggins. "We didn't have four good practices and it's hard because it's New Year's Eve and New Year's (Day). We were a little slow. We didn't get to the ball the way we have been getting to the ball, but we responded and came out in the second half. I kept thinking we weren't playing very well but kept looking up and we had only lost one point. Then we kind of made some shots."
Freshman point guard Truck Bryant played 34 minutes, but struggled from the field, hitting just four-of-15 shots to finish with 10 points.
Although it might sound far-fetched to have called the Seton Hall game a "must win" game being that it's only the first week of January, the importance of picking up a road win in the Big East – no matter how early or how late in the season it might be – cannot be understated.
WVU will return to Morgantown Saturday night to begin preparations for Tuesday night's much-anticipated home date with No. 2 Connecticut. The Huskies, who lost their league opener to Georgetown this past Monday, possess the greatest collection of talent in the loaded Big East.
"(UConn freshman) Kemba Walker is probably the quickest guy in our league," Huggins said. "We had a hard time staying in front of Dyson and Price a year ago. Austrie isn't as quick, but he's so skilled with the ball. They have the four most talented guards in the league. That might not even be right because Pitt's got a bunch too."
Hazell led Seton Hall with 29 points.