It was a fitting end to a championship run that was earned by, not given to, the Mountaineers. Their three wins at The World’s Most Famous Arena came by a combined seven points.
And two of them were won with late-game heroics from Butler, who claimed the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award by hitting his second game-winner in three nights on one of basketball’s biggest stages.
“We ran the same play that we set up for the Cincinnati game,” said Butler.
“I think [GU center Greg] Monroe was on me. And I think he had a feeling I was going to shoot a 3. I had a little hesitation, went around him and [Georgetown forward Austin] Freeman stepped up. I had a little hop-step, scooped the lay-up off the glass, and it fell.”
But unlike his buzzer-beating 3-pointer that knocked out the Bearcats in the quarterfinals on Thursday, Butler’s shot in the lane left time for the Hoyas to answer.
Point guard Chris Wright drove downcourt quickly and got into the lane before attempting a twisting, off-balance runner. It fell well short of its target as the horn sounded, to the delight of thousands of WVU fans who made the pilgrimage to basketball’s Mecca from Morgantown and elsewhere.
“We wanted to win this for our state first,” said Butler. “Because the people there love us so much and they support us so much. I definitely know it means the world to them, and for our school and for us.”
“We have a lot of people depending on us to do a lot, especially in our state. That was our main concern -- not letting the state down.”
They need not worry about that after delivering a postseason championship to fans in the Mountain State for only the second time since 1983-84.
The first was a title in the National Invitational Tournament in 2007, the season before head coach Bob Huggins arrived.
But this one, on the same Madison Square Garden floor, instead propelled West Virginia into the thick of the race for a No. 1 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.
“We have 18 top 100 [RPI] wins,” said Huggins. “We have nine top 50 wins. The 18 is the most of any team in the country. Our non-league RPI was second. Our strength of schedule is going to be [No.] 1. We’re going to end up in the top two or three of the RPI.”
“They say to do those things, and we’ve done those things. That being said, we’re going to enjoy this. We’re going to get together tomorrow and watch the Selection Show, find out where we’re going to go and who we’re going to play.”
That next game won’t come until at least Thursday, when the chase for the national championship begins. But on this night in New York, the Mountaineers took home the conference hardware by never allowing their opponents to get the upper hand in a dramatic, back-and-forth second half.
After leading by as many as nine points on two separate occasions, WVU watched its lead slowly whittled to three when Freeman scored on a put-back of a missed 3-pointer by Wright.
That came with 4:11 remaining. And from there, the Mountaineers would never again hold an advantage of more than three points. Freeman finally tied things with a 3-pointer that made it 56-56 with 51 seconds to go.
But, just as it had through two other nail-biters in the Big East tournament, West Virginia refused to relinquish the lead in the second half of a game.
Joe Mazzulla, who played extended minutes once again as regular starting point guard Truck Bryant continued to struggle, hit a pair of free throws to give his team a two-point lead with 27 seconds to go.
But Wright answered, scoring on a twisting runner to his left that tied it back up at 58-58. West Virginia advanced the ball to mid-court and Huggins called his final timeout with nine seconds left.
From there, Butler worked his magic. He received an inbounds pass from Devin Ebanks and twisted his way into the lane, briefly rising just enough to put up a half-hook over his head that struck the back of the rim and fell through.
After Wright missed his last-ditch attempt (this time, going to his right instead of the left and seeming to lose his balance), a wild celebration ensued on the floor.
Mountaineer players took turns climbing a ladder and cutting down the net on the goal Butler had scored his sixth game-winner of the season through. They received commemorative watches in turn and took home the big hardware -- both a championship trophy and the Most Outstanding Player award for Butler.
“We know what we are,” said Huggins. “John F. Kennedy, when they asked him to run for vice president because he was young, aristocratic and Catholic, he replied, ‘Why settle for second when first was available?’”
“That’s how we’re going to go about things. I mean, that’s what is in us. So I learned a long time ago you don’t worry about what other people say.”
Early on, it looked as though those other people would call West Virginia “runner up” for the second time in as many trips to the Big East title game.
On a day that featured torrential downpours, frigid temperatures and stiff winds, it looked like the Hoyas were set to rain on WVU’s parade early. They jumped out to an 8-1 lead in the early minutes as the No. 3 seed missed all of its first five field goal attempts.
But the Mountaineers weathered the storm and took command with a 13-2 run mid-way through the period to claim a 21-15 lead on a Wellington Smith jumper from the elbow.
Georgetown (23-10) would quickly claw back within a point on a Julian Vaughn put-back and a 3-pointer from Hollis Thompson, but Butler answered by putting back a missed Devin Ebanks jumper while getting hacked.
The bucket gave WVU’s senior star his 2,000th career point, as he became only the third player in school history to reach that lofty plateau.
It was just part of a 13-for-25 shooting binge to end the half, which began when Kevin Jones scored the team’s first field goal, a 3-pointer at the 13:58 mark. The sophomore became only the third Mountaineer to hit a shot from beyond the arc in the league tournament, joining Butler and reserve guard Jonnie West.
By the end of the period, Smith had joined the act. His trifecta was just part of a first half that saw the senior recover from the slump he had endured through the team’s first two games, as Smith had nine points and six rebounds to go with two blocks in the opening 20 minutes.
West Virginia (27-6) would briefly build a lead of as many as eight points in the latter minutes of the half, but a pair of old-fashioned 3-point plays from Wright brought the edge back down to two.
But Smith completed a stellar half with a put-back of a missed hook shot by Deniz Kilicli just before the buzzer to make it 32-28 at the intermission.
And while its lead would ebb and flow between nine points and the point of nonexistence, the Mountaineers would never let Georgetown take the lead in the final 29:52.
Butler, to no one’s surprise, led his team with 20 points. He added six rebounds and two assists while playing all 40 minutes.
Smith managed a double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds despite being held to the bench for much of the second half and ultimately fouling out with 1:37 left.
Jones had 12 more points, and Mazzulla had six -- all of which on a perfect performance from the foul line. More importantly, the junior guard had seven assists and no turnovers.
The Hoyas were paced by the efforts of Wright, who had 20 points and seven assists of his own.
Freeman poured in 14, and Monroe was held to a relatively tame 11 points and six boards after exploding for 23 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists in a semifinal win over Marquette on Friday.
But the number that mattered most on Saturday was “one”, as WVU earned its first-ever Big East title.
It was yet another sign of the evolution of Mountaineer basketball in the last decade, as former coach John Beilein and current coach Huggins turned a program on the conference’s doormat into one capable of competing with -- and beating -- any team in America on any given night.
But Huggins, predictably, deflected praise to the players (both of the seniors and Mazzulla, Cam Thoroughman and Jonnie West) who were recruited by Beilein, and the younger crop of talented contributors brought in by the current head man.
“I don’t think it’s about me,” he said. “I think it’s about them. They’re the ones who come in and go through what they go through on a day-to-day basis. They’re the guys who have to go out and produce on the floor.”
“I just want them to enjoy it and receive all the accolades they deserve.”
“They understand how much it means to the people in the state of West Virginia. And they understand how much it means to the students at our university, because they are a part of it. They’ve done an unbelievable job of becoming part of the community. And it’s like the governor told them -- ‘You are all West Virginians and you’re always going to be.’ And I think they appreciated that and they take it to heart.”