Louisville entered Saturday night's game at West Virginia needing a win to clinch its first Big East regular season championship since joining the league in 2005-06. The Mountaineers, meanwhile, were already locked into the seventh seed for next week's Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden, but were still looking for a nice landmark win to end the regular season on a high note.
Unfortunately for West Virginia, the will of the ‘Ville was a bit too much to overcome, particularly on a night when Alex Ruoff was held scoreless and Da'Sean Butler scored just 10 points as the Cardinals claimed the win and the title by a final score of 62-59.
"I am real proud of our basketball team," said U of L head coach Rick Pitino, who knows a thing or two about winning conference championships. "Not only for winning the Big East Championship in a year that could be the toughest since the inception of the league, but to do it on the road against such an extremely well-coached team in this kind of atmosphere. It's a real treat for the guys."
Senior forward Terence Williams played one of his best games of the season, scoring a game-high 20 points, pulling down six rebounds, dishing out seven assists and collecting six steals to lead the way for U of L (25-5, 16-2).
Williams got hot early, hitting all four of his three-point attempts in the first half, including a crowd-killer at the buzzer just seconds after WVU had tied the game at 29 after falling behind by as many as 10 points minutes earlier.
"He is playing really good basketball," Pitino said of his senior forward from Seattle. "Certainly he was the guy that carried us through offensively."
Defensively, it was a team effort as usual for the Cardinals, who again bothered West Virginia with their full-court pressure just as they had done on January 31 in Freedom Hall when the schools last met. In the first game, Louisville used the pressure to speed up the game and force a ton of early turnovers, ultimately burying the Mountaineers deep in a hole they could not climb out of.
Saturday night, the pressure was just as effective, but in a different way, this time slowing the game enough to keep WVU out of its motion offense for much of the shot clock. Once the ball crossed the timeline, Louisville's extended 2-3 zone kept the Mountaineers from reaching any sort of comfort level, particularly from behind the three-point arc. West Virginia attempted just 12 3's, making two.
"We made a conscious effort tonight," Pitino said. "we had to play our zone like man-to-man. We get after people, we don't play it like a traditional Syracuse zone.
"Our game plan tonight was to smother the three-point line," continued the only man to lead three different schools (Providence, Kentucky and Louisville) to the Final Four. "Even when they came up at half court, we were dogging the guy. We did give up a lot of offensive rebounds because of the strategy, but it stopped them from making 3's."
Particularly bothered by the zone was WVU's Alex Ruoff, who entered the game with 253 three-point field goals for his career, tying him for the school record with former teammate Kevin Pittsnogle. Ruoff, playing his final game at the Coliseum as the team's lone senior, remained tied with Pittsnogle as the Spring Hill, Fla. native finished 0-5 from the floor, missing both of his three-point attempts and not scoring. Ruoff was plagued by fouls for much of the night in a game that was called extremely tight by the officiating crew of Bob Donato, Ray Perone and Tim Higgins.
WVU head coach Bob Huggins got his second technical foul of the season (the first game at Marquette) midway through the first half for barking at Higgins. While neither team was particularly pleased with the officiating, it was simply part of the game.
"I thought we adjusted (to the tight whistles)," Pitino admitted. "The referees were calling it really tight and sometimes in Big East it isn't called that way. If it's called that way, it's going to be called fair both ways."
Even with the miserable night for Ruoff and an off night for leading scorer Da'Sean Butler (4-17 from the field, 10 points), the Mountaineers had their chances down the stretch. WVU held brief leads multiple times late in the game, but could never separate itself enough to pull away.
One particularly brutal stretch came with roughly five minutes to play in regulation. With WVU leading 54-52, Williams missed a 3 that would have given Louisville the lead. Edgar Sosa corralled the offensive rebound and found Williams, who quickly fed Earl Clark. Clark nailed an open 3, giving U of L a lead it would not relinquish.
On the ensuing inbounds play, Ruoff was picked clean by Sosa, who layed in an easy two, got fouled and converted the old-fashioned three-point play, taking U of L from a two-point deficit to a four-point lead in less than 30 seconds.
The door remained slightly ajar up until the game's final play as Williams missed a free throw that would have given U of L a four-point lead. Butler sped up court with the rebound, ran off a terrific screen from Wellington Smith and fired an open look from 3. It rimmed out.
WVU was led by Kevin Jones, who scored a career-high 19 points and grabbed eight rebounds. Devin Ebanks added 16 points and 10 rebounds.
"They have a couple of very talented freshmen," Pitino said. "Kevin Jones and Devin Ebanks from New York are really going to be great players one day. Sometimes those freshmen step up in a big way."
They certainly did on Saturday night, but it still wasn't enough to lift WVU past Pitino's Cardinals, who will head to MSG next week riding sky-high with confidence.
"We have been a really good road team the past three years and we had to be tonight," the coach concluded. "We got that one spurt we needed off of our defense. Sometimes the press can give you three or four spurts; sometimes with teams like West Virginia, they only give you one spurt. We got that one spurt that just turned the game around for us."
And in the process, delivered a Big East Championship to Louisville for the first time.