West Virginia entered its final road game of the 2008-09 regular season needing a win, and got it, overcoming a sluggish start to easily dispatch of the University of South Florida by a final of 64-50 at the Sun Dome.
After Thursday night's gut-wrenching loss at Cincinnati, the Mountaineers entered a must-win situation on Sunday afternoon in Tampa. While a win over South Florida isn't exactly a feather in the cap, a defeat would have been WVU's worst loss of the season, and inched the Mountaineers a little bit closer to the wrong side of the NCAA tournament bubble. Simply put, they could not afford to come home from the three-game road trip 1-2.
There were moments in the first half when it looked as though USF was going to give WVU all it could handle, just as the case had been in the second half of a previous meeting between the two schools back in January. The teams went back and forth in the opening 20 minutes, which featured no less than five ties and seven lead changes.
South Florida built a lead as large as three points, but its success in the first half came despite a quiet effort from leading scorer Dominique Jones, who scored just six points in the opening frame after lighting West Virginia up for 35 in the January meeting at the Coliseum. With WVU keying on Jones, USF's Chris Howard made the most of his open opportunities, scoring eight first-half points to keep the Bulls afloat.
Just as Jones was slowed for the Bulls, Mountaineer stalwarts Da'Sean Butler and Ruoff were quiet offensively. West Virginia's top two scorers combined for just eight first-half points. Freshman point guard Truck Bryant, who has struggled mightily in recent weeks, played his best basketball since January, scoring nine points in the first half. Despite the sluggish play, WVU led by three points at halftime.
At the beginning of the second half, though, Ruoff and company made sure that no such loss was going to happen. Leading by just three points at the break, West Virginia exploded out of the gate to start the second half, going on a 10-1 run to break the game open. Of those 10 points, eight belonged to Ruoff, a native of nearby Spring Hill, Fla. who was playing his final collegiate game close to home.
"I thought Alex came up big, and made some big plays for us," said WVU head coach Bob Huggins, who improved to 17-1 all-time against South Florida as a head coach. Huggins was 14-1 against the Bulls while coaching at Cincinnati. Both USF and UC were members of Conference USA before joining the Big East.
The future Hall of Fame head coach kept his troops in the locker room a little bit longer than normal at halftime, just to make sure that his points of emphasis were understood. From the outset of the second half, it was clear that his message had been received and put to good use.
"What I tried to do is get them to do what we were supposed to do to start with," Huggins explained. "We were playing point-drop and we were chasing their bigs out to the wing and they started slipping us, which was the same thing they did in Morgantown. I told them they can't chase them all the way out there or they were going to get slipped. We did a much better job in the second half of not getting slipped. We made a couple of bad rotations, but we did a much better job in the second half."
And once the Mountaineers got going, there was no turning back. After falling behind by double-digits early in the half, USF never got closer than nine points for the rest of the game.
West Virginia began to assert itself on the boards, and finished the game with a sizeable 38-25 rebounding advantage. Included in that total were 15 offensive rebounds. WVU led by as many as 15 points in the second half.
"We grinded that one out," said Huggins. "We got them by 13 on the glass and I guess that's the key to the game. We turn it over nine times; they only turn it over six. We just had a hard time guarding their penetration out of man, so we went to some point drop and some 1-3-1 just to give them some different looks."
Though not the most aesthetically pleasing of efforts, it was still good enough for WVU's 20th win of the season. With nine league wins, West Virginia is assured of no less than a .500 record in Big East play. Ruoff finished with 16 points, 13 of which came in the second half. Devin Ebanks added 10 points, seven rebounds and five assists. Bryant finished with 13 points, marking just the second time in more than a month that he scored double-figures. The rookie point guard was held scoreless against USF in January.
Kevin Jones continued his stellar play, scoring 10 points on five-of-eight shooting. Jones is 44-74 from the field in his last 13 games.
Da'Sean Butler struggled from the floor for the third straight game, and has now missed double-figures in consecutive games for the first time this season. He finished with eight points, but did grab a game-high 12 rebounds. Butler, WVU's leading scorer, finished the road trip 11-31 from the floor.
Dominique Jones finished with a game-high 18 points to lead USF.
WVU returns home on Wednesday night when it takes on DePaul at the Coliseum. Tipoff is scheduled for 7:00 PM.