In some respects, West Virginia could not have gotten a worse draw for its first two games here at the 2009 Big East Championships at Madison Square Garden. Both Notre Dame – which WVU dispatched on Wednesday night – and Pitt base their offense around big, wide dominant post players (Luke Harangody for the Fighting Irish and DeJuan Blair for Pitt). The Mountaineers meanwhile, don't have a true post player in their eight-man rotation.
So far here in the Big Apple, none of that has mattered. It didn't matter on Wednesday night against ND and it didn't matter again on Thursday as the Mountaineers led for the entire second half en route to a surprisingly-easy 74-60 win over the Panthers, who were tabbed by many as the favorite to win this week's annual event.
"It feels good," said WVU's Da'Sean Butler after the win. "This game, (Pitt) beat us twice this season and, no, we're not a team to lose three times to any team. We just came out and we played well."
Of course battling Blair was downright impossible to do as the 6-7, 265-pound behemoth spent much of the night viewing the action from a courtside seat on the Pitt bench. The talented sophomore, who was named the league's co-Player of the Year earlier this week, spent much of the first half in foul trouble, and ultimately fouled out late in the game.
With Blair essentially a non-factor, the Mountaineers had free reign over the Garden floor. Freshman forward Devin Ebanks had his second consecutive standout performance, though this time in a different way. Against Notre Dame, the Long Island City, N.Y. native pulled down 18 rebounds. On Thursday night, it was his offense that stole the show. Ebanks scored a career-high 20 points to lead West Virginia to its biggest win of the season.
"Devin has been terrific, you know, from the Big East season on," said WVU head coach Bob Huggins of his talented rookie. "These guys can tell you, he's gotten so much better. He's gotten so much better defensively. He does a lot of things for us.
"I think that's what's great," continued Huggins, who is now 4-1 in the Big East tournament. "He's played point guard for us. He's our leading rebounder. He's been really, really good and he's a great guy on top of that."
While Ebanks was the game's high scorer, he wasn't the only one inflicting damage on Pitt's normally-tough defense. Alex Ruoff chipped in 18 points and effectively ran the offense. Da'Sean Butler, beginning to get his groove back after a two-week slump, added 16.
And of course, there was plenty of defense as is always the case with Bob Huggins's team. To say the Mountaineers stymied the Panthers in the second half would not be doing the team's defensive play justice. Simply put, Pitt had absolutely no clue what to do against the 1-3-1 zone employed by WVU for much of the second half, even with experienced standouts such as Levance Fields and Sam Young in the fold.
Young, who normally torches West Virginia, scored 15 points to lead the Panthers, but was not nearly the game-changer that he has been in the past against the Mountaineers.
With Blair on the bench for the final 16 minutes of the first half, West Virginia was able to either hold a small lead or stay within a reasonable striking distance before heading into the locker room. The lead changed hands several times, with WVU getting a lift at the halftime horn when John Flowers tipped in a missed three-point attempt from Ebanks to give the Mountaineers a two-point lead at the break.
Even with the lead, one couldn't help but wonder if Pitt had just taken WVU's best shot. The Panthers, after all, were sans their star. Too, West Virginia's Butler was saddled with three fouls, which worried Huggins so much that he elected not to start his junior forward at the outset of the second half.
Despite Blair's absence and a perfect 13-13 effort from the foul line by the Mountaineers, the Panthers trailed by just two.
As it turned out, the Mountaineers were just getting started. They built their lead to as big as eight points to open the second half, with the Panthers never getting closer than four. Then, with just over 11 minutes remaining, Pitt's chances took a critical – and perhaps lethal – blow.
After a missed shot by Young was knocked out of bounds, Blair inexcusably delivered an elbow into the chest of Ruoff as the teams walked back up the floor. Veteran official Jim Burr was watching the whole time, and immediately whistled a technical foul on Blair. Ruoff calmly sank both technical free throws to begin an 8-0 run by WVU which, with the way the Mountaineers were defending, effectively put the game out of reach. The Panthers would get no closer than eight points for the rest of the way, and Blair fouled out to end his frustrating night with 1:17 to play.
Pitt had advanced to the Big East tournament finals in seven of the past eight seasons, including each of the past three seasons. The Panthers won the tournament last season.
"Obviously, congratulations to West Virginia," said Pitt head coach Jamie Dixon. "I think they really deserved the win. I think we were outplayed."
The Mountaineers move on to the Big East semifinals for the second consecutive season, where they will face either Syracuse or Connecticut.