For much of its time as a member the Big East Conference, West Virginia was one-and-done when it came time for the annual league tournament at Madison Square Garden. After joining the league for the 1995-96 season, WVU lost eight of its first nine games.
In recent seasons, however, the Mountaineers have bucked that trend, winning six of their past 10 and advancing to at least the quarterfinals of the tournament every year since 2005.
Wednesday night's game against Notre Dame stayed true to the latter trend as WVU got off to a hot start and, for all intents and purposes, never looked back en route to a fairly-dominating 74-62 win over the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
Alex Ruoff led the way with 25 points, shaking off the rust from a forgettable scoreless performance Saturday night against Louisville.
"You know, the advice I got from (WVU head coach Bob Huggins) was to put (Saturday's nightmare) behind me," Ruoff said. "It happens. Of course, it hurt me because I care a lot about winning and our team, but that's one thing you have to put behind you. So, I wasn't trying to think about it, just come in tonight."
The Spring Hill, Fla. native came out firing against the Fighting Irish. Entering the game tied with Kevin Pittsnogle atop the school list for career three-pointers with 253, Ruoff easily moved past his former teammate, knocking down four 3's.
As a team, WVU hit 11-20 from long range. Good thing, too, as on the whole, it was not a great shooting night for the Mountaineers, who made just 36 percent from the field.
Making up for the somewhat-cold shooting was another dominating effort on the glass. In the first meeting between the schools back in February, West Virginia held a sizeable edge on the glass, out-rebounding the Fighting Irish by 12. On Wednesday night, the Mountaineers blew that margin out of the water, grabbing 52 rebounds to just 32 for Notre Dame. Included in that total were 20 offensive boards.
Leading the way on the glass yet again was Devin Ebanks, who had the best rebounding game of his young career, grabbing a game-high 18. That total for Ebanks is the most by a WVU player in the Big East tournament, topping the previous record of 14 held by Gordon Malone.
Just as important as grabbing the rebounds was keeping Notre Dame star Luke Harangody from doing the same. Harangody, the junior forward who led the Big East in scoring and rebounding this season, grabbed just eight boards, and was never able to dominate the offensive glass for rebounds and putbacks as he is so accustomed to doing. He did score a game-high 27 points, 23 of which came in the second half.
Aiding Ruoff's scoring efforts were Da'Sean Butler and Truck Bryant. Butler, who always seems to play well in the World's Most Famous Arena, busted out of his recent slump by scoring 20 points on six of 17 shooting. It was the first time since his 43-point outburst against Villanova on February 13 that Butler has topped the 20-point plateau.
Bryant, who has come on strong over the past two weeks after struggling mightily for much of the Big East schedule, added 17 points, hitting six of his nine field-goal attempts and four 3's. More importantly, the freshman from Brooklyn effectively ran the team and didn't force the action too much. Bryant added four assists and just one turnover to his stat line. Hitting a few early shots clearly gave Bryant all the confidence he needed to turn in a good game.
"That just helps me out more," he said of his good start. "If I'm hitting shots, they'll run out to me, and then I can kick it to Alex, Da'Sean, Devin, Kevin Jones. It makes it a lot easier for me when we are all hitting shots."
"He stayed in the game a lot longer compared to past games because he was doing a lot of things right today," said Butler of his teammate. "He scored very well. He just did all the things basic and correct and played good."
The Mountaineers limited Notre Dame to just 18 first-half points, the lowest point total in a single half since Brey took the reins in South Bend. The Fighting Irish made just seven shots in the opening 20 minutes as WVU raced out to a lead as large as 20 points.
"I thought we did a pretty good job defensively," noted Huggins, who is now 3-1 in the Big East tournament and 34-11 overall in conference tournaments. "I think the whole tone of the thing was we were very aggressive in the first half. We were very aggressive defensively and trying to rebound the ball and then in the second half, they became the aggressor."
The win moves Huggins into 25th place on the all-time NCAA Division I wins list with 638.
The Mountaineers advance to the Big East quarterfinals, where they will face archrival Pitt. The Panthers took two previous meetings this season from WVU.
"We've got to man-up," said Ruoff. "They are a physical team. We got a lot of foul trouble at their place and kind of opened the game up. We've got to match their physical play. We made a few mistakes down the stretch that opened up the game at our place. (We have to) limit our mental mistakes and match their physical play."