Though most of West Virginia's regular season was a success and should be considered as such, there are still a handful of teams that did not get WVU's best shot.
Marquette, for instance, played a group of Mountaineers that – for the most part – did not include Da'Sean Butler as the junior forward missed large chunks of that lopsided loss in Milwaukee while battling foul trouble. After playing sparingly in the game's first 31 minutes, Butler fouled out for good with just over eight minutes to play. The wheels came off shortly thereafter for the Mountaineers, who essentially laid down their guns at that point.
Connecticut, while more talented top to bottom that West Virginia and likely every other team in the league, took advantage of a handful of Mountaineer breakdowns during the January 6 meeting between the two schools in Morgantown. The Huskies exploited those mistakes en route to a hard-fought, narrow victory at the Coliseum, one which left WVU's players, coaches and fans wondering "What if…?"
No team, though, left the Mountaineers with a more bitter taste in their mouths than the Pitt Panthers. Twice, the archrivals from the north were able to beat West Virginia. Not only did the Panthers win, but did so in convincing fashion.
Particularly frustrating was Pitt's February 9 win in Pittsburgh. On that night, both Butler and senior guard Alex Ruoff – WVU's two leading scorers – battled foul trouble. The Panthers bullied the Mountaineers every which way they could, and while the final score of 70-59 looked respectable, anyone who watched the game would note that it was quite clear who the better team was on that night.
If there was a rock-bottom for West Virginia during the regular season, it came on that chilly night in Oakland. Ever since that game, WVU has played its best basketball of the season, good enough to receive a top-eight seed in the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden.
By virtue of their second-round win over Notre Dame on Wednesday night, the Mountaineers moved on to face Pitt. And while they had less than 24 hours to prepare for their third meeting with the Panthers, West Virginia's players got all the motivation they needed by watching film of the first two games.
"Definitely," said freshman forward Kevin Jones. "We always have been thinking about what we could have done better to win either one of those two games. We went over the film a lot. The coaches really had the film down, so we just had to go out and execute what they were telling us. We did that."
They certainly did. WVU carved up the Panthers' much-vaunted defense early and often on Thursday night. It was also abundantly clear from the opening tip that the team in blue uniforms was playing with a sizeable chip on its shoulder, to say the least.
"We owed them one, and basically that's what it came down to," said Devin Ebanks, who led the way with a career-high 20 points in Thursday's quarterfinal win. "We owed them one and we just had a memory of them out-toughing us in those first two games. We wanted this one bad."
The Mountaineers led by two at halftime, and extended the lead to as many as eight in the opening minutes of the second half. Though the Panthers would claw closer, they would never quite get over the hump. Part of that was self-inflicted, what with star center DeJuan Blair battling foul trouble and frustration for much of the night.
A microcosm of the game came with just over 11 minutes to play. It was then that Blair, for no particular reason, threw an elbow to the chest of WVU's Alex Ruoff while the teams were walking up the court during a change of possession. Veteran official Jim Burr spotted Blair's shenanigans and quickly hit the league's co-Player of the Year with a technical foul. Ruoff hit the corresponding free throws to start an 8-0 run for the Mountaineers. That run, for all intents and purposes, put the game away.
"We said that right then was the time to step on their throat," Ebanks noted. "That's what we did. We made some key plays coming down the stretch, smart plays."
And as a result, served up an ice-cold dish of revenge to the hated and heavily-favored Panthers, who had advanced to the tournament finals in each of the past three seasons and seven of the past eight.
While it would be easy to rest on the laurels of its biggest win of the season, West Virginia is not yet satisfied. Up next is Syracuse, another team which throttled the Mountaineers during the regular season. While the Orange might be running on fumes after last night's thrilling six-overtime win over Connecticut, the Mountaineers are motivated, especially with a trip to the Big East Championship game on the line.
"We're hungry," Ebanks said. "We're hungry right now and we've been saying that all week. We owe a couple of the teams in this Big East tournament. I'm glad that we've got one out of the way, and (tonight) we've got to get another one."