Sweet Vindication

BUFFALO -- Early this season, when many pundits tried to discern just what would be West Virginia's downfall, they pointed to a lack of quality point guard play, an inability to handle pressure defenses, and poor foul shooting. On Sunday at HSBC Arena, the Mountaineers advanced to their fourth Sweet Sixteen in the last six years largely thanks to the strength of all three of those facets of play.

The East regional's No. 2 seed withstood Missouri's much-ballyhooed "Fastest 40 Minutes in Basketball" defense in a way no team that had faced the Tigers had all season and won its second round NCAA Tournament game 68-59.

?In the 48 hours between WVU's 77-50 win in the first round over Morgan State and tip-off of this game, much of the focus had revolved around how well the favorites would be able to handle the full-court pressure favored by its opponent from the Big 12 Conference.

In committing only 10 turnovers, three fewer than Nebraska, whose 13 giveaways against head coach Mike Anderson's defense had been the least committed by any of Missouri's opponents this year, they answered those questions resoundingly.

"It was just like a press. It was a regular press," said Mountaineer forward Da'Sean Butler, who, with 28 points, led all scorers. "We came to the ball. We met the ball when they pressed and we got people coming back to the ball."

"We just took care of it. As a team, we didn't really panic at all. We stepped up the challenge and played like men and broke the press."

But even despite that exceptional care for the ball, West Virginia still had to grind out a win to advance to the East regional semifinals, where it will face No. 11-seed Washington in the Carrier Dome at Syracuse, N.Y.

It hit 25 of 33 free throws to help make up for the fact that the Tigers managed rare edges on a Bob Huggins coached team in terms of offensive rebounds (17) and second-chance points (19).

But it was a pair of missed free throws by Cam Thoroughman that set up the play that sealed the outcome.

After Thoroughman's second clanked off the rim, Butler swooped in quickly. He picked up the loose ball and attacked the rim, scoring a relatively easy lay-in with 1:17 to go.

Instead of Missouri having possession with a chance to draw within as few as two points, West Virginia led 64-57.

"If I miss my first one, if I don't go out there and take care of business, I might miss me second one," Butler said. "We crash [on the rebound] anyway. We kind of crossed, and nobody really boxed me out. I just kind of went up there, grabbed it and laid it in."

"But it was a matter of just getting to the basketball. I got there first, before he did, and made the play."

From there, Kevin Jones and Devin Ebanks each sunk a pair of foul shots in the final minute to seal things, and WVU was able to celebrate with a sizable contingent of fans that made the trip up to western New York as the final seconds ticked down.

While Thoroughman's misses proved fortuitous, it was the free throws the Mountaineers made throughout that allowed that celebration to occur.

West Virginia (29-6) somehow withstood several lengthy field goal droughts -- most notably a dry spell of 12:51 that spanned both halves.

It started with an Ebanks jumper from around the foul line that gave his team a 23-17 lead and ended when Truck Bryant scored on a fast-break lay-in to make it 36-29.

Indeed, despite a nearly 13 minute run without a single field goal, the Mountaineers got to the foul line and made enough shots from there to actually allow their lead to go up a point in that span.

"We wanted to attack their pressure," Huggins said. "When you are as aggressive as they are, you're going to foul some. We knew that. I think you don't get fouled when you don't attack. And we wanted to be in an attack mode and continue to attack them."

Much of that attacking came from Butler and Ebanks, who combined to account for 23 of their team's 33 attempts from the free throw line. They also combined to make 20 of those shots.

Butler, who scored 12 of his points quickly on the strength of four 3-pointers in the first 9:38 of the game, tallied 12 of his the 16 points he scored in the last 30:22 from the charity stripe. He only missed one attempt from there and led his team to the win.

"He's been our leader throughout the whole season," said Jones. "We look to him for a lot of things, and he's just been able to come through throughout the whole season. I know he'll keep on coming through for us."

"He's a good player, you know?" said Missouri guard J.T. Tiller. "Night in and night out, you're going to be challenged. He stepped up to the plate."

"He knew we were going to try to really see what he was going to do. He put his stamp on the game. So you can't take anything away from him."

After getting behind 10-0 in the early moments of their first round game against Morgan State, the Mountaineers did their best to flip the script, jumping out to an 8-0 lead in the opening minutes.

A pair of Butler trifectas powered the surge, as the forward had four 3-pointers by intermission.

But much like WVU did on Friday, Missouri quickly recovered. Anderson's squad used a brief 6-0 spurt midway through the period to get back within striking distance.

The Tigers (23-11) finally tied things up with about three minutes left in the half on a Kim English 3-pointer to make it 25-25.

"When it was 25-all, I thought we were gaining some momentum and getting ready to take off," said Anderson.

But Butler began attacking the basket, drawing contact on multiple occasions. He hit five of his seven first half free throws in the waning minutes to make it 30-25 at the break. The senior had 19 points by halftime.

"In the first half, he got in a rhythm," Anderson said. "He really got on a roll."

Butler's 28 points led all scorers, and he added eight rebounds, two assists, two blocks and a steal. Ebanks had 14 points (eight of which came from the foul line) and seven boards to go with three assists, a block and two steals.

Jones just missed out on a double-double, with 13 points and nine rebounds (five of which came on the offensive end).

For Missouri, Michael Dixon led four players in double figures with 15 points. Tiller had 13, four assists and two steals. Zaire Taylor and English both added 15.

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