In order to avoid the proverbial letdown in Sunday's game at Rutgers, West Virginia needed to get off to a good start. The Mountaineers (19-8, 8-6 in Big East play) certainly got that and then some, sprinting out of the gate with a 21-4 run to open the game and never looking back en route to a 74-56 win over the hapless Scarlet Knights.
After Rutgers (10-17, 1-13 in the Big East) grabbed a quick 2-0 lead, WVU seemingly put the game away with an impressive display of offense, scoring 13 straight points to take command. In response to the scoring outburst, Rutgers head coach Fred Hill switched to a junk defense, standing two players in the lane to guard against layups and using the other three defenders to chase West Virginia's Alex Ruoff, Da'Sean Butler and Devin Ebanks on the perimeter.
The funky defensive setup of the Scarlet Knights left players such as Kevin Jones, Wellington Smith and even the seldom-used Dee Proby open for makeable mid-range jump shots. Even with the open looks, it took West Virginia a few minutes to adjust. In the meantime, Rutgers went on a quick 8-0 run to get back in the game, cutting their 16-point deficit in half over a three-minute span. The Scarlet Knights would get as close as five points in the first half.
A few minutes later, Proby took advantage of his open looks on multiple occasions, knocking down a pair of open looks to make the most of his brief cameo. It was the first time since early in the non-conference season that the junior college transfer had seen extensive minutes before the game's outcome had been decided.
By virtue of late-half efforts by Proby and Jones, the Mountaineers went into the locker room with a 37-25 lead.
The advantage would balloon to as big as 17 early in the final frame on a 3 by Alex Ruoff. Midway through the second half, West Virginia again looked befuddled against the oddly-aligned Rutgers defense. With shot attempts falling few and far between for the Mountaineers, the Scarlet Knights were able to make up some ground behind the efforts of freshman guard Mike Rosario, who scored a game-high 15 points.
A WVU lead that was as big as 14 points earlier in the second half was suddenly trimmed to 4 on a basket by RU's J.R. Inman. After another empty West Virginia possession, the Rutgers center Hamady Ndiaye missed the front end of a one-and-one. As it turned out, that was as close as the Scarlet Knights would get.
On the next West Virginia possession, WVU head coach Bob Huggins called timeout. His Mountaineers responded by outscoring Rutgers 24-10 for the rest of the game, thus ending any chance of an upset in the RAC.
"We had to make some changes," Huggins said of his decision to call a timeout with the under-eight media break scheduled to come just a few seconds later. "We weren't attacking. They were standing two guys in the lane and guarding three guys. We had to get those other two guys in a position to where they could make shots."
Even with the offense bogging down for stretches during the game, WVU's trademark man-to-man defense never faltered. Aside from the 2-0 Rutgers lead in the opening minute of the game, West Virginia never trailed. Though RU had plenty of chances to make things interesting when the Mountaineers went cold, WVU's defense again rose to the occasion.
"We were going to have to win the game with our defense, and we did," Huggins said. "Early on, (the Scarlet Knights) didn't know what to do, but then later they did what everyone else tries to do which is ball screen and beat us off the bounce because they couldn't run anything. We did a pretty good job at times and then a not so good job at other times."
Leading the way statistically for West Virginia was Ebanks, who continues to blossom game-by-game. The freshman forward recorded his second straight double-double, scoring 14 points and grabbing 11 rebounds. He also dished out four assists.
While Ebanks was solid, his effort wasn't the only one of note for WVU. Wellington Smith had his best game of the season, scoring 12 points and blocking five shots. Jones scored 10 points off the bench, and even Proby, despite not playing in the second half, contributed mightily to the winning effort. The Mountaineers had 21 assists on their 27 made baskets.
After not grabbing a single offensive rebound in the first half, the Mountaineers snared a dozen over the final 20 minutes.
"We get 12 offensive rebounds in the second half and that's the ballgame," Huggins said. "There were a couple of times that they cut it to four, and we miss a shot but get an offensive rebound and put it back in."
Smith, playing roughly 20 minutes away from his hometown of Summit, hit two big jump shots down the stretch to seal the win.
"It was a four-point game and Wells makes two huge shots for us," Huggins said of the junior. ". Wells makes two shots and then makes some huge blocks for us and changes a few other shots."
Aside from everything else, the biggest benefit of this win came by virtue of Syracuse's loss to Villanova earlier in the day. With the win, WVU moved into sixth place in the Big East standings with four games to play. No less than 10 days ago, the Mountaineers were in danger of finishing outside the top eight in conference play.
"We're sixth, but that's this league," Huggins concluded. "We tried to explain to them going into this week that they could make a huge jump in the standings. Those top teams are going to start beating each other too. Thursday (at Cincinnati) is a big game for us. It's a two-game swing. We go in there and get them in their place, we get two games on them.
"It comes down to we have to take care of our own business," he said.
In the first game of three straight on the road, WVU did precisely that.