The Mountaineers' marquee player returned from a three-game suspension with no noticeable adjustment. The forward mouthed "I'm back" while running down the floor in the first half, then sealed WVU's fourth win in as many games this season late in the second. West Virginia clung to a 68-63 lead with 45 seconds left when Ebanks stole the ball in the backcourt, then dunked while being fouled. The resulting free throw pushed the advantage back to eight. Texas A&M cut it to 71-66 with a three-point play before Ebanks second steal in 30 seconds off point guard Donald Sloan. He was again fouled and hit both free throws for the final margin.
"I saw him try to cross over to his left. Once I saw that second bounce I went for it," said Ebanks, who had been suspended for what the school called "personal reasons."
Ebanks said he had put the situation behind him and expects to play the remainder of the year with no issue. There certainly was none with his play. He entered at the 15:40 mark and immediately hit two jumpers. On the defensive end, Ebanks eased the advantage A&M had in the lane with 6-9 Bryan Davis, allowing West Virginia to rally from a six-point first-half deficit. Ebanks finished four-of-six from the field with nine rebounds, three assists, two steals and a block with no turnovers.
"It takes a lot of pressure of me, the things he can do," said WVU forward Da'Sean Butler, who scored 17 points to lead the Mountaineers. "You have the check him, to know where he is. He does so many things for us."
As does Butler. With the game tied 44-44, Butler made a long two, then hit three-pointers on consecutive possessions and added a two free throws as part of a 12-1 run that opened a 56-45 lead with 11:47 left. The edge held until Texas A&M scored six straight points with about three minutes left. The final hoop – a steal and lay-in – put the Aggies within four at 67-63 before Ebanks' heroics.
"I think he was pretty good today," West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins said. "But it came down to today when we made our run we had five veterans on the floor."
Indeed, the Mountaineers seemed perplexed by A&M's perimeter screening early. The Aggies continually ran interior players onto the perimeter, where they screened WVU's guards. The Mountaineers had difficulty maneuvering around the size, and often would double on the ball as opposed to rotating off. That left the perimeter open for a shot from the screening three- or four-man. Texas A&M also screened along the baseline, which opened some shots from the corner. But the Ags fired just three first-half three-pointers, and eight in all, and their lack of overall ball movement and assists allowed the game to slip slowly away.
"It got real physical in the second half and we didn't respond to it," Texas A&M head coach Mark Turgeon said. "We had chances, but were not very efficient on offense. Their halfcourt defense was very good, getting through screens, getting into people, holding cutters."
West Virginia also surprised A&M, ahead 34-32 at the break, by running several five-out possessions in the early portions of the second half. That led to four quick points for a lead WVU would relinquish just once the rest of the game. But there were noticeable issues on both ends of the floor – as Huggins aptly noted in his own style after the game.
"I think we suck right now with or without Devin," he said. "If we don't have five guys playing together on offense we aren't very good. If we don't have five guys playing together on defense, we're not very good. And that's what we have right now. I don't think we're as good right now as we were at the end of last season. But nobody else is doing what we're doing – playing a team like Ole Miss on December 23rd, then playing at Purdue on January 1st. We asked these guys and that's what they wanted, to be challenged. So we challenged them."
So did Texas A&M, which was led by Sloan's 18 points. B.J. Holmes also scored 18. Truck Bryant scored 12 points and Kevin ones added 11 for West Virginia, which advances to the final to meet the winner of Minnesota vs. Portland. The Mountaineers will tip at 10 p.m. EST in the final on Sunday.