WVU used runs of 11-0 and 9-0 in the final minutes to take command of what had been a surprisingly close contest throughout, securing its ninth Big East Conference win.
The first scoring spree came just on the heels of a 9-0 run from Rutgers, which took a 42-39 lead on a Dane Miller layup with 10:31 to play.
But the Mountaineers (18-10, 9-7) answered, playing in a way head coach Bob Huggins surely was proud of by piling up offensive rebounds and turning them into points.
A Casey Mitchell bank shot and a three-point play from John Flowers got the run started and gave WVU a tenuous 44-42 lead.
Mitchell, a senior guard, missed a total of three 3-point shots on his team’s next two possessions, but continued to earn extra opportunities thanks to three offensive rebounds from Flowers and another from teammate Kevin Jones. Mitchell ended both of those trips by making trifectas, pushing his team out to a 50-42 advantage.
“John Flowers did a terrific job on the offensive glass,” Huggins told the Mountaineer Sports Network, praising his senior forward. “He got us another five or six possessions, which we really needed.
“They tried to play some zone so we tried to get Casey in to make some shots. He made some and gave us a little bit of cushion, which we very quickly lost. We just had to grind it out.”
Indeed, Rutgers rallied when it seemed like all might be lost. The Scarlet Knights twice pulled themselves back within a single point, doing so for the last time at 53-52 when Jonathan Mitchell made a pair of free throws with 2:50 to go.
But the hosts would only score another two points, coming on a Mike Coburn layup with about 30 seconds to play. By then, West Virginia had build a double digit lead once more and put any thoughts of a Senior Day upset to rest at RU.
“After we stopped giving up penetration ... I thought we did a heck of a job,” Huggins said. “At the end, they had a hard time scoring ... really, they had a hard time scoring other than us putting them on the foul line.”
Rutgers (13-15, 4-12) had a day Mountaineer fans were far too familiar with, struggling to make open shots at times and generally having difficulty putting points on the board. The hosts shot a paltry 1-of-13 (7.7 percent) from 3-point range and didn’t make any of their six attempts from long range in the second half.
That kept first-year coach Mike Rice’s team from taking more advantage of what was a solid first half performance (or, perhaps, poor early play from WVU). The Scarlet Knights scored the game’s first six points and led for almost the entire opening half.
West Virginia didn’t take its first lead until guard Truck Bryant hit his third 3-pointer of the first half to give his team a 20-19 edge with 4:20 remaining in the period.
The Mountaineers took a 25-22 advantage with them to the locker room at halftime of a game that was dominated by defense as much as any of their other Big East games, which have been characterized by sluggish offensive performances all season long.
Rutgers did claim another lead of as many as three points in the second half and it seemed as though WVU was in for another dicey finish, but some timely scoring and stronger defense down the stretch was enough to pull away late.
“That was a team win,” Huggins said. “I thought everybody -- I didn’t think we were real good in the first half, but the second half, I thought everybody played with a bit more pep in their step.”
Bryant led the Mountaineers with 15 points, showing further signs of coming out of his weeks-long shooting slump by hitting those three first half trifectas. Flowers and Jones both had double-doubles; the former had 14 points and 10 rebounds (six on the offensive glass) while the latter had 12 points and 11 boards.
Coburn had 20 points to pace Rutgers, while Miller added another 11. Only one other Scarlet Knight (Mitchell, with eight points) managed more than six.
WVU’s Huggins had expressed confidence that his Mountaineers would be in the newly-expanded Big Dance field in recent weeks, expressing time and time again that his team’s lofty RPI and strength of schedule rankings would be enough to secure an at-large bid.
But he said that this win, which ensured West Virginia will finish no worse than 9-9 in Big East play, was the final piece of that postseason resume.
“I’m telling you, I don’t lie to them,” Huggins said. “I told them this game right here was the biggest game of the season for them. This game, I think effectively puts us in the NCAA Tournament. I think 9-9 with our strength of schedule and our RPI puts us in.
“Now still, you’re a little nervous when you’re sitting there, because taking 11 teams [from the same league] is unprecedented. That’s never happened before. And if everybody finishes above us -- and if we finish 9-9, everybody could conceivably finish above 9-9 -- really, I’m nervous again.”
But Huggins wasn’t thinking about that worst-case scenario in the immediate aftermath of the win.
Already, his mind was looking ahead to try to figure out how his team could put itself in the best possible position -- by winning its last two regular season games, both of which will be against nationally-ranked opponents (Connecticut and Louisville) at the Coliseum.
“If we can win out and go 11-7, we’ll pretty much guarantee we get a first round bye in the Big East Tournament,” Huggins said. “It would get us 20 wins [overall] against the first or second best schedule in the country, so it would bode well for our NCAA seed as well.
“For these guys -- and we screwed up a couple games early on -- but to get back to where they’ve got a chance to win 20 games and finish in sixth place, that’s a pretty good year really for the things that we’ve gone through with the guys that we lost and the limited number of guys we have available.”