Sweet 16 fixture
WVU solidifies hoops tradition with win over Duke
Posted: Saturday March 22, 2008 7:37PM; Updated: Saturday March 22, 2008 9:59PM
WASHINGTON D.C. -- Now that the West Virginia Mountaineers are moving on to their third Sweet 16 in the past four years, now that their fans are preparing to descend on Phoenix for the second time in the past three months (having watched their football team trounce Oklahoma in January's Fiesta Bowl), the time has come to ask a once-blasphemous question.
West Virginia: Football or basketball school?
"I'm going to say a basketball school, with a good football team," Mountaineers guard Alex Ruoff proclaimed following his team's rousing 73-67 upset of second-seeded Duke here in Saturday's NCAA second-round contest.
"Right now, basketball school, because it's basketball season," said senior point guard Darris Nichols. "But both football and basketball have had a lot of success. It's pretty much the golden era for West Virginia sports."
For a state that lives and breathes with the success of its flagship university, the citizens of West Virginia likely will be throwing one heck of a party Saturday night. ("It's probably a good thing the students are on spring break," joked Nichols.) It's not just that the Mountaineers are going to the Sweet 16 -- that's old hat by now -- but they did it by beating Duke, the bluest of college basketball's blue-blooded royalty and a team whose roster is nearly as heavy with "McDonald's" as that dude from Super Size Me.
"We're a team that's always undersized, and if you look at us, you might not think we're that athletic," Ruoff said. "We have a blue-collar ethic that the people of our state really appreciate."
The Mountaineers also pride themselves on their selfless approach, and in this case, it kicked in the night before Saturday's game. Senior center Jamie Smalligan, despite having started all 35 previous games this season, sent a text message to coach Bob Huggins telling him, "it's a better matchup if I don't start."
Huggins took his player's advice, inserting swingman Wellington Smith and sending an intentionally smallish lineup on the court to combat Duke's perimeter-dominated lineup. It didn't help much at first -- the Blue Devils raced to an 18-8 lead -- but the Mountaineers were largely accomplishing exactly what they intended. Much like underdog Belmont had done in Duke's first-round game two nights earlier, West Virginia's players repeatedly attacked the lane and attacked the Blue Devils' vulnerable dribble-drive defenders.
In the first half, their shots weren't falling; in the second half, they seemingly couldn't miss.
Led by relentless star Joe Alexander -- who finished with 22 points and 11 rebounds -- the Mountaineers, after trailing practically the entire first half, outscored the Blue Devils 39-18 beginning with 16:42 left in the second half to win going away. Alexander set the tone as much with his defense, swatting Duke players' shots twice in the span of 55 seconds (visibly taunting Duke's DeMarcus Nelson after the first one, telling him "You shouldn't shoot anymore"), just as the Mountaineers first took the lead.
But as is West Virginia's way, nearly everyone played a role. Ruoff's off-balanced three-pointer as the shot-clock expired tied the game for the first time since the opening minutes and first seemed to swing the momentum. (He finished with 17 points). Backup guard Joe Mazzulla -- whose masterful performance included 13 points, 11 rebounds and eight assists -- first gave the Mountaineers distance with a driving lay-in to go ahead 47-40.
And with starting power forward Da'Sean Butler stuck on the bench for an extended period with foul trouble, freshman backup Cam Thoroughman -- a 0.3-points per game scorer on the season -- came in and scored two important baskets, including a dagger to put West Virginia up 11 with just 3:32 remaining.