Da's Night

NEW YORK -- Just shy of 12 years earlier, Bob Huggins' Cincinnati team saw its season end when West Virginia's Jarrod West banked in a 3-pointer at the buzzer of a second-round NCAA Tournament game. On Thursday night at Madison Square Garden, Huggins got to experience the other side of that same scenario.

Doing his best imitation of West, Mountaineer senior Da'Sean Butler banked home a game-winner at the buzzer, sending his team to the semifinals of the Big East Conference tournament for the third consecutive year with a 54-51 win over UC.

WVU will face No. 7 seed Notre Dame in the second semifinal game at the Garden on Friday night. Tip is tentatively scheduled for 9:00 p.m., following a match-up between Georgetown and Marquette.

But Thursday night was all about Butler's fifth game-winning shot of the season -- and second in as many games, after he hit a runner with 5.4 seconds left in overtime to beat Villanova at the Wachovia Center last Saturday.

It was perhaps the least picturesque of the five, as the forward managed to lose his balance shortly after fielding an inbounds pass with 3.1 seconds left. He recovered, dribbled once, stepped back and fired a shot that was far too strong to go in cleanly.

It was perfectly accurate though, allowing it to easily fall through at the horn after deflecting off the glass. And while some might be apt to call it a lucky shot, it apparently would have counted even on the playground at legendary Rucker Park in Harlem.

"He called it," said UC guard Lance Stephenson, who was defending Butler on the play. "He said, ‘Bank.' I said, ‘What?' I turned around and I seen it go in."

"I always feel confident with my shots," said Butler.

"I felt good. I saw it hit the glass and I said, ‘Oh, it's fine.' It fell right there."

As dramatic as Butler's shot was, it was the second game-altering play by the forward in the final 6.4 seconds of regulation. With the game tied and Cincinnati in possession, an inbounds pass went to Dion Dixon.

Butler guarded the Bearcats' reserve and harassed him into a traveling violation that somehow went uncalled. But shortly thereafter, the ball squirted free from Dixon's grasp, and Butler tapped the ball off his opponent's hands before it rolled out of bounds.

"I didn't want to foul him, so I just let him go catch it," said Butler. "I was thinking he was going to keep going, but he kind of hesitated and I got in front of him. He went to do something with the ball. I don't know what he was trying to do. I tapped it right back into his hands and it went out of bounds. I'm grateful (official Jim) Burr saw that one."

Instead of UC having a chance to win in regulation, it was the Mountaineers. Butler made sure he took advantage.

"This is really good," he said. "Especially being here, a historic gym. A lot of great players have played here. For me to get an opportunity to come here, for my team to pick up the win and for me to showcase what I can do and what my teammates can do -- especially at the last second -- that was cool."

In the early stages, it didn't look like West Virginia would need a buzzer-beater to win. In fact, it looked like the No. 2 seed was going to run away and have a rare laugher.

A chuckle was all Devin Ebanks could muster after an improbable score near the start. With his back towards the goal and in the midst of being pushed to the floor by Yancy Gates, the forward flipped the ball over his head.

It rolled in, and Ebanks (likely knowing just how lucky he had been) smiled broadly before standing up, stepping to the foul line and making the bonus free throw to make the score 7-1.

That was just part of an impressive opening run. The white-clad Mountaineers jumped out to an 18-4 lead to begin the game and didn't allow a single Cincinnati field goal until Lance Stephenson scored on a reverse lay-in with 9:18 to go in the first half to make it 18-6.

But that bucket turned momentum, and the Bearcats would use a 19-5 spurt of their own (taking advantage of a 5:52 scoring drought by their opponents) to tie the game at 23-23 on a Larry Davis 3-pointer.

"I thought we would make more shots than we did," said Huggins. "But they do a great job. They change defenses, and they really packed it in the lane and didn't give us anything easy."

But WVU would take the lead into the break when Jonnie West entered and made good on Huggins' proclamation of last Saturday, saying he ran a play to get the seldom-used guard a jump shot in the waning seconds of a tied game in overtime against Villanova.

After a long-range miss from Casey Mitchell, West grabbed a back-tipped offensive rebound. He turned, dribbled to the elbow and fired up a 3-pointer of his own that fell through just before the buzzer to give West Virginia a 26-23 lead at intermission.

The Mountaineers (25-6, 14-5) continued to hold a tenuous advantage for most of the second half. But they seemed to be firmly in control when Ebanks sank a pair of foul shots with 5:42 left to make it 47-38.

But UC's two-man offensive game, featuring Stephenson and forward Yancy Gates (who combined to score all but five of their team's 28 points in the second half), surged back with a 9-0 run to tie it up on a Gates put-back with 2:49 to go.

Kevin Jones stopped the bleeding with a pivotal jumper from around the foul line, and Stephenson made only one of his two free throws with 1:42 left to make it 49-48.

After Huggins called timeout, Butler appeared to be set to drive the lane late in the shot clock, but the ball popped free. The forward fell on it, but spotted Jones open near the basket before defenders could force a jump ball. Still laying on the court, Butler fired a pass. Jones fielded it and laid the ball in just before the shot clock expired, making it 51-48 with 1:07 left.

But Stephenson, typically not known as an outside shooting threat, wasn't done. He found an open spot in the 1-3-1 zone Huggins was employing and launched a 3-pointer that fell through with 42 seconds left, tying the game at 51-51.

"We were trying to get the open look," said Stephenson. "I was the open person. I couldn't let my team down. So I had to hit the shot."

Cincinnati (17-15, 8-12) defended well on WVU's ensuing possession. A desperation shot from Ebanks failed to draw iron and the Bearcats got the ball with 6.4 seconds left, setting up the wild ending.

The loss ends the UC's already slim hopes of earning a bid to the NCAA Tournament. Instead, it will likely settle for an NIT berth.

"I'm really proud, but on a personal level, I feel really bad," said Bearcats coach Mick Cronin. "They deserved a much better ending. Win, lose, or draw -- it's a just a tough way, obviously, to lose the game when a guy banks in a shot."

Cronin's squad was led by Stephenson, who had a game-high 19 points. He also had seven rebounds. Gates added 11 points and seven boards. Deonta Vaughn had nine points. No other Cincinnati player managed more than three.

For WVU, Jones had 17 points and six rebounds. Butler had 15 points, six boards and five assists, while Ebanks managed 10 points, six rebounds and five assists.

The Mountaineers defied the curse of the top four seeds at the Big East tournament. In the second year of the current format for the league tournament, teams seeded No. 1 through No. 4 (which receive two byes into the quarterfinal round) are now 3-5 in the quarterfinals.

Huggins' squad was the only team that received a double bye to advance to the semifinals, as Syracuse, Villanova and Pittsburgh all were bounced from the bracket earlier Thursday.

"I'm not a fan of the double bye," said the third-year West Virginia coach.

"We definitely saw [the earlier losses]," said Jones. "We didn't want to end up like them. That's why we came out, played hard and played the way we did."

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