For West Virginia to go where it hopes to go come March, it must beat the teams it is supposed to beat. St. John's, just 2-5 in Big East play entering Wednesday night's tilt in Morgantown, is one of those teams. The Mountaineers acted accordingly, jumping out to a sizeable first half lead and never looking back on their way to a 75-52 win at the Coliseum.
West Virginia's first-half play was consistent on both ends. The Mountaineers collected 13 points off of 13 St. John's turnovers in the opening half, and limited the Red Storm to making just nine of its 26 first-half shots. Many of the misses came from point-blank range. All in all, WVU's first half effort was too much for St. John's to overcome. West Virgini
"We turned the ball over too many times," said SJU head coach Norm Roberts, who has never beaten WVU. "We talked about making simple plays and playing out of character. (The Mountaineers) do that to you, but honestly we missed about three of four bunnies. If you make those shots, your team gets confidence and you play well. We didn't finish plays inside that we had a chance to make."
For just the second time this season, WVU unveiled a defense that extended beyond half court. Earlier in the year against Delaware State, the Mountaineers briefly set up in a full-court 1-2-2 alignment. Against the Red Storm, West Virginia showed a half-court trap.
"We knew they were going to do that to us," said Roberts. "We just have to get stronger on the attack. We have young guards, but they have been through the wars now. We just have to be tougher with the ball."
"I'm trying to find something else we can do (defensively), to this point unsuccessfully," said WVU head coach Bob Huggins. "I'm trying to find something else to give us another look and another change."
West Virginia continued its dominance in the second half. The 36-20 halftime deficit was the closest St. John's would get for the rest of the game. Leading the way offensively for the Mountaineers was the two-man tandem of Da'Sean Butler and Alex Ruoff. Butler continued his recent tear, finishing with 21 points, including five 3s in seven tries. He also added seven rebounds.
Ruoff, meanwhile, scored 17 points, grabbed six rebounds, dished out seven assists and collected four steals. And despite the fact that he was pressed into action at point for much of the second half as starter Truck Bryant battled leg cramps, Ruoff turned the ball over just once.
"We tried to limit their touches, but Ruoff got some looks early," acknowledged Roberts. "Da'Sean (Butler), he is so bit and moves so well without the ball. I think we allowed our lack of offensive production to affect our defense. We are a much better defensive team than what we played and we have done a much better job of guarding."
Such was not the case, obviously, against the Mountaineers, who finished the game shooting 44 percent from the floor while limiting the Red Storm to just 37 percent, including a 16.7 percent from three-point range.
West Virginia's stellar play came despite injuries to Bryant and Wellington Smith, who sprained his knee in practice on Monday and played just nine minutes on Wednesday. Smith did block five shots in his limited action.
Freshman Devin Ebanks scored 10 points and grabbed eight rebounds, while Kevin Jones chipped in eight points and six boards off the bench.
While nothing particularly stood out in the game, the end result is what matters the most. In a league where upsets are occurring on a nightly basis, the Mountaineers were able to take care of business against a team it was supposed to beat.
"We did what we had to do," said Huggins. "In two days (following the loss to Pitt), we tried to bang on them about how important the game was and tried to show them how important the game was in the league standings. A loss now and you lose two games (in the standings) and there are just so many people so close. Providence gets Syracuse today (100-94) and Cincinnati (beat) Georgetown. They're all important and we need to continue to win games."
Next up for WVU is a weekend trip to Louisville, where Rick Pitino's seventh-rated Cardinals await.
"We're going to get pressed for 40 minutes on Saturday," Huggins said. "I think Rick (Pitino) has probably studied the roster, and if not, he will tonight. We have to be fresh when we get there."
Tipoff at Freedom Hall is scheduled for noon.