West Virginia had plenty of chances to essentially lock up its status as an NCAA tournament team, but could not capitalize on any of them. That, along with the play of Cincinnati freshman Yancy Gates, ultimately did in the Mountaineers here at Fifth-Third Arena as the Bearcats hung on for a 65-61 win in Bob Huggins's much-publicized return to his former stomping grounds.
Gates, who entered the game with averages of 10 points and six rebounds per outing, turned in a double-double of 22 points and 11 rebounds to lead the way for UC (18-10, 8-7 BE), who will inch even closer to making their first Big Dance appearance since 2005 with the win over the Mountaineers (19-9, 8-7).
Even with the career night for Gates, West Virginia had plenty of chances to win down the stretch. Trailing by a point with less than a minute to play, Huggins called timeout to draw something up. The play, though, never had a chance, as junior forward Wellington Smith hesitated to throw a pass to an open Da'Sean Butler. The ball bounced around, with Cincinnati's Rashad Bishop ultimately picking up the loose ball.
The door remained ajar, though, when UC's Steve Toyloy was only able to knock down one of two foul shots at the other end, giving the Mountaineers a glimmer of hope even with a two-point deficit.
The ensuing possession for West Virginia resulted in a clean look from 3 for senior Alex Ruoff, but that didn't fall. Cam Thoroughman grabbed the offensive rebound, and Ruoff got another look, but again could not convert.
Toyloy followed that up with a missed pair. WVU freshman Devin Ebanks grabbed the rebound with 15 seconds to play, raced up the court out of control and lost his footing, resulting in a travel.
The Mountaineers had no choice but to foul on the inbound, but even the execution on that play was lacking. Huggins inserted seldom-used sophomore guard Will Thomas, who in theory would deny UC's Deonta Vaughn the ball on the pass. Thomas, however, fell down before the ball was even thrown in, and then clearly committed an intentional foul by grabbing Vaughn's jersey as the junior guard sped away, giving the Bearcats two shots and the ball.
For all intents and purposes, that was the game as Vaughn knocked down three of his four foul shots to put the game out of reach for West Virginia.
"Our execution down the stretch wasn't very good," said Huggins. "I probably screwed up. I put a guy in (Thomas) that hadn't played. I put him in because he defends pretty well in practice. He fell down; Deonta (Vaughn) got the ball, and then got an intentional foul."
"We just made too many mistakes, my included," Ebanks said. "I should have just taken my time and looked things over, but so it goes."
The Mountaineers were nothing short of abysmal from the field again, a common denominator in most if not all of their losses this season. WVU shot just 33 percent from the game, and made only eight shots in the second half. West Virginia had two field goal droughts of at least four minutes. While much of that falls on the Mountaineers themselves, the defensive effort of UC also played a factor.
"I thought we could have made more (shots) than we did," an exasperated Huggins said afterward. "They just jammed it up for us where we couldn't score close. They forced us to make some jump shots, and we didn't make any. We didn't make enough."
Alex Ruoff led WVU with 18 points, but made just five of his 13 field goal attempts. Ruoff was 10-11 from the foul line. Ebanks added a double-double of 12 points and 14 rebounds. Kevin Jones had 12 points, but leading scorer Da'Sean Butler was held to just eight points.
The Bearcats, meanwhile, made 47 percent from the field. In fact, WVU likely would not have had a chance to win down the stretch were it not for some shoddy foul shooting by UC.
"Obviously a great win for our team despite poor shooting from the three-point line and our poor free throw shooting," said third-year UC coach Mick Cronin, who is now 2-0 against his former boss. "We are winning ugly and grinding out victories. If you can hold teams to 61 points, you are going to have a chance to win.
To be honest, now that we have won the game, if I could have scripted it that way, I would have," he continued. "We got down and we had to get defensive stops to win the game."
Of course West Virginia's lack of execution in crucial moments aided UC's effort to get said stops. No matter what way you slice it, though, the Bearcats made enough plays to win the game, while the Mountaineers did not.