Mitchell scored a career-high 31 points, including all six Mountaineer three-pointers – the last of which proved the biggest. With WVU holding for the last shot, Vanderbilt switched back into a 2-3 zone it had mixed with man throughout the second half. Truck Bryant drew two defenders, then kicked to Mitchell. The junior drilled the dagger three from the left wing for the win; Vanderbilt missed its final chance as Rod Odom’s shot caromed of the glass and rim before falling away as time expired.
“Truck made a great decision at the end,” West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins said of his point guard, who finished with six assist against one turnover. “They showed man and went zone and we had both sets that we wanted to run ready.”
Mitchell was to be in the same left wing floor position regardless of set. Vanderbilt showed its zone and Mitchell again busted it.
“I think everybody has been waiting for Casey to break out. He made huge, huge shots for us,” Huggins said. “I give him a lot of credit.”
It was by far the biggest game of Mitchell’s career. Every time Vanderbilt rallied – and it did often, coming from down as many as 14 to tie the game four times – Mitchell made big shot after big shot. He made two threes in a key 9-0 run about midway through the first half after Vanderbilt tied the game at 54-54. After Vanderbilt scored, Mitchell further extended the edge with another three, this for a 66-55 lead with five minutes left. And just one minute later, Mitchell caused the foul out of Vanderbilt star Jeffery Taylor, who finished with just five points.
Mitchell’s resulting free throws gave WVU (3-0) a seemingly comfortable nine-point lead with four minutes left. But that, too, dissipated under a trio of John Jenkins threes, as the Vandy guard rallied the Commodores (2-1) with nine of his team-high 27 points over the next two minutes to forge a 68-68 tie and set-up Mitchell’s heroics.
After Mitchell made the three for the final margin, Huggins said he had no thought of fouling because of West Virginia’s rebounding issues.
“I was concerned they would make one and miss one and we wouldn’t rebound,” Huggins said. “I’d rather take a shot with our defense. Odom got a bad shot. We didn’t want Jenkins to take it.”
The All-SEC player never touched the ball on the final possession. The game at times seemed a one-on-one shooting contest between Jenkins and Mitchell. Like most great offensive displays, the player with the last chance was able to win. And it wasn’t as though Mitchell hadn’t already delivered.
With West Virginia down five early, Mitchell spurred a 17-4 for an 18-10 lead at the 12-minute mark. He hit a jumper, then made two free throws after Vanderbilt head coach Kevin Stallings was called for a technical. Mitchell later canned the first of his threes before following it with consecutive interior buckets to tally 11 points over the six-minute spurge.
The Mountaineers built the lead to the game-high 44-30 on a Mitchell three-pointer with 10 seconds left in the half. Vanderbilt answered with a three as the clock expired for WVU’s 44-33 advantage at the break. But the damage was done, leading Vanderbilt head coach Kevin Stallings to utilize the zone and switch point guard Brad Tinsley to the two-spot. He inserted the quicker, more athletic Kyle Fuller at the point, and all three moves paid immediate dividends.
Vanderbilt scored 14 of the first 20 second-half points to cut the lead to 50-45 inside 12 minutes. The Commodores later tied it at 54-54 with nine minutes to play, getting two huge three-pointers from Jenkins during the spurt. The shooting was huge, as two marquee players – Jeffery Taylor and center Festus Ezeli – missed much of the latter half because of foul trouble. Tinsley finished with 10 points, and Odom had 11 off the bench.
Kevin Jones had 12 points and 11 rebounds for West Virginia. Bryant scored 11 points, while no other Mountaineer had more than six.
Both teams were 12-of-29 from the floor in the first half, but West Virginia made 12 more free throws in 17 more attempts along with doubling up the Commodores with eight offensive rebounds in a 22 to 15 overall edge. Those numbers essentially reversed in the second period as Vanderbilt’s 2-3 zone and activity on the boards aided the comeback. The Commodores finished with a 40-39 rebounding advantage, including 14 on the offensive end to match West Virginia. The Mountaineers had 20 field goals to Vanderbilt’s 19, but one less three.
WVU now plays the Minnesota-North Carolina winner in Sunday’s Tip-Off title game, scheduled for 7:30 p.m. EST. A win would give West Virginia its second consecutive in-season tournament championship; the Mountaineers won the 2009 76 Classic in Anaheim.
“Fun playing for championships,” Huggins said. “Wouldn’t have been as fun playing Sunday afternoon.”