Sandwiched in between an instant classic of a league opener at Seton Hall and a showdown on New Year's Day at Purdue maybe a letdown of sorts was expected from West Virginia. Not to mention the presence of an underdog in Marquette looking to serve notice that they'll be better than the 12th-place spot predicted by the Big East's coaches and it wouldn't have been a huge shock if the Mountaineers fell. But these are the kinds of games that teams aspiring for bigger things in March (and April) find a way to win, and WVU did exactly that by the final score of 63-62 thanks to Devin Ebanks, Da'Sean Butler and some poor late-game foul shooting.
Butler knocked down a contested 20-footer (I don't know how much better that shot could have been defended without fouling) with two seconds remaining to cap a comeback from five down with less than a minute left in the game. Missed free throws from Darius Johnson-Odom and Jimmy Butler set the stage for the amazing comeback, and Butler played lights out over the final twelve minutes, scoring eight points and leaving his fingerprints on the final stages of the game. In fact West Virginia's "big three" (Butler, Ebanks and Kevin Jones) scored 54 of their 63 points, shooting 24-38 from the field while the other Mountaineers were a combined 4-17.
Lazar Hayward led all scorers with twenty-four points for the Golden Eagles, who essentially handed away a game that they had well within their grasp. But while the senior received scoring help from Johnson-Odom (14 points) Marquette didn't have much of an answer for Ebanks, who led WVU with nineteen (8-12 FG) and changed the tone of halftime with a three pointer as time expired, cutting the Golden Eagle lead down from seven to four (37-33). But as good as the win feels for the Mountaineers there's little rest to be had: two days (in addition to travel) sits between them and #4 Purdue in West Lafayette.
Three Key Happenings
1. Xavier handles LSU in Cincinnati. It may be a stretch to say that this was a "must-win" for both teams but it may have been for the Tigers, who remain without a road/neutral win this season as a result of the 89-65 defeat. Terrell Holloway led the Musketeers from the point with 20 points and Kenny Frease celebrated his first start with twelve rebounds as Xavier outrebounded LSU 53-37 in a dominant performance. The Tigers shot just 34.9% from the field (1-14 3PT) and watched Tasmin Mitchell and Bo Spencer shoot a combined 12-36 from the field. Xavier proved to be deeper as well, with Jamel McLean leading the reserves with ten points and ten rebounds. At the least LSU could have used a close loss on the road, but the Atlantic 10 contenders were in no mood to cooperate.
2. Creighton may be in serious trouble and they've only played one league game. It's not as if the Blue Jays lost to a bad team; Ben Jacobson's Northern Iowa Panthers are a very good basketball team (now 10-1, 1-0 MVC). But something's been amiss with Dana Altman's team for seemingly the entire season; they're a team with more talent than their 5-7 record may suggest. In a game matching the top two picks in the Valley's preseason media poll, Creighton managed just eighteen first-half points in their 60-52 loss to the preseason favorite. Ali Farokhmanesh and Kwadzo Ahelegbe combined to score 27 points in the win while Cavel Witter led the Blue Jays with fourteen.
Witter and Wayne Runnells were two of the three players to make more than one field goal and they both come off the bench. Antoine Young was the lone starter to do so, making four while the other starters combined for just three field goals. When Kenny Lawson Jr. and P'Allen Stinnett combine to shoot 2-for-12 you're not winning and those are two guys that Creighton needs going in order to be a factor in the MVC race. In Creighton's seven losses Stinnett, who at one point last year was a Valley Player of the Year candidate, has shot under fifty percent from the field in six of them. The Blue Jays have looked out of sync offensively for a good portion of the season thus far and if they don't get it corrected soon things can head downhill quickly in a much-improved league.
3. Guess Houston needs a refresher on how important defense is. Either that or they'd like to be an NIT team in March. The Cougars fell to Louisiana Tech 99-94 at home thanks to the Bulldogs shooting 51.4% from the field and finishing a +12 in points from the foul line. Tom Penders' team plays an entertaining brand of basketball and can score with most of the teams in America. But when you lack the ability to get a crucial stop or two at the end of games more often than not you're going to lose games like these. And given how close Houston, UTEP, Memphis, UAB and Tulsa are at the top of Conference USA that could be all the difference between having a shot at an at-large going into the conference tournament and needing to run the table.
Louisiana Tech turned the ball over twenty times but made up for that with a 48-30 edge on the board and double-doubles from Magnum Rolle (29 points, 10 rebounds) and Olu Ashaolu (17 points, 21 rebounds) to go with 28 points from Kyle Gibson. Houston ranks dead last in both field goal percentage and rebounding margin, and outside of Memphis being eighth in rebounding margin the other four teams listed above rank in the top half of Conference USA in both categories. That simply will not get it done for Houston.
Top Three Games
1. West Virginia 63, Marquette 62 See above.
2. Rhode Island 80, Drexel 79 Keith Cothran scored four points to cut a 79-74 Drexel lead down to one within 23 seconds and Lamonte Ulmer tapped in his missed jumper with 1.7 seconds remaining to give the Rams the victory. Cothran led all scorers with 28 points while Chris Fouch led the Dragons with 23.
3. Cornell 78, La Salle 75 Ryan Wittman scored a career-high 34 points and became the school's all-time leading scorer as the Big Red moved their win streak to eight. Rodney Green led the Explorers with nineteen points.
Three Notable Performances
1. F Wesley Johnson (Syracuse) Johnson scored 20 points, grabbed 18 rebounds and blocked five shots in the Orange's 80-73 win at Seton Hall.
2. C Olu Ashaolu (Louisiana Tech) and Herb Pope (Seton Hall) Both accomplished double-doubles in which they had more rebounds than points. Ashaolu went for 17 points and 21 rebounds in the Bulldogs' 99-94 win at Houston while Pope scored 15 points and grabbed 17 rebounds in the Pirates' loss to Syracuse.
3. G John Wall (Kentucky) Wall may have scored just nine points but he also set the school record for assists in a game with sixteen in the Wildcats' 104-61 win over Hartford.
Random Fact: Two career scoring records fell on Tuesday. Ryan Wittman (Cornell) and James Florence (Mercer) both took over the top spot in their school's record book.