During his afternoon media session on Friday, WVU head coach Bob Huggins warned that South Florida and Dominique Jones had both improved considerably since the teams last met in 2008. On Saturday afternoon, Huggins's words proved to be prophetic, but luckily not to the point that his Mountaineers suffered their first bad loss of the season.
West Virginia overcame a 35-point effort from Jones and a furious second-half comeback by USF to escape with a narrow 62-59 win over the Bulls in Big East action inside the Coliseum. Da'Sean Butler scored 27 points and Alex Ruoff added 19 to pace the hosts.
During the first half, it looked like WVU would run the Bulls out of the gym. Butler scored 17 points in the first half, including his own personal 8-0 run in the midst of a 23-3 West Virginia spurt that gave the Mountaineers the lead for good.
Over the life of that run, the Mountaineers moved the ball like a veteran team and controlled the game on the offensive end, passing up decent shots in hopes of finding better shots, which they often did. WVU built a lead as
"I seriously thought about going home at halftime and taking my team because we were pretty bad," said second-year South Florida head coach Stan Heath. "It didn't look like we had the energy level, and we weren't competing the way that we needed to. But, I thought we were a lot different team in the second half."
They certainly were. Behind Jones, the Bulls chipped away at the deficit over the first 10 minutes of the second half, and continued to do so down the stretch. On several possessions, USF was able to pull within a point, but never could take the lead. Perhaps the best chance for South Florida to take the lead came with 2:17 to play. Heath had called a timeout to set up a play, but before the ball could be inbounded, USF forward Augustus Gilchrist was whistled for his fifth foul on a blatant pushoff.
On the ensuing WVU possession, John Flowers was left open on the perimeter against South Florida's triangle-and-two defense, and calmly sank a 3 to bump the Mountaineer lead back to four.
"That's the second time we've run that play for John," Huggins said afterward. "We ran it in the Ole Miss game (a WVU win in Oxford on December 3). We knew they wouldn't guard him, and he's made it both times."
Flowers finished with six points, five rebounds, two assists, three blocks and two steals in the win, but no play was bigger than his 3. He entered the game shooting just 15 percent from downtown on the season.
"You have to give the kid credit to take it, knowing that it is not his strength or what he has been successful at during the year," acknowledged Heath, formerly the head coach at Kent State and Arkansas. "He stepped up and made it. If I had to pick my poison, I would certainly let him take it again."
USF switched to the triangle-and-two after Butler and Ruoff combined for 27 of West Virginia's 34 first-half points. By doing so, the Bulls all but dared other Mountaineers to score. WVU's young rotation didn't help matters by ceasing to share the ball and move the offense as effectively as they had done in the first half.
Freshman point guard Darryl Bryant went scoreless for the second time in three games, and was eventually pulled in favor of a lineup that delegated ballhandling responsibilities to Butler and Ruoff.
Meanwhile, Jones continued to pour in the points. The sophomore standout scored 23 of his game-high total in the second half to lead the South Florida comeback. He finished 11-25 from the floor, but was just two-of-eight from three-point land. Jones also had eight rebounds and three assists while never coming out of the game.
"Both teams, it was two against one," Heath said. "They had Butler and Ruoff and we had Jones.
"It was just not enough," he continued. "We needed some more guys to step up for us. I don't think it was the prettiest game. It was exciting in a way because it came down to the wire. They made a couple more plays down the stretch than we did."
Huggins agreed with the assessment of his counterpart.
"down the stretch, we made some defensive plays and John Flowers made some," Huggins explained. "When you work as hard as we do on defense, you are supposed to make some plays. We finally did at the end of the game."
Jones had a chance to tie the game at the horn, but his off-balance three-point attempt fell short of the goal.
The Mountaineers will now have a five-day break between games. West Virginia returns to action on Thursday night at Georgetown, followed by a home game against top-rated Pitt next Sunday.