SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - Casey Mitchell stood alone on the court and missed his final two 3-point attempts of warm-ups. Then, once the game began, he missed six of his first eight 3-point tries.
He didn't miss again.
Mitchell sank a 3-pointer with 3.8 seconds to play to give West Virginia a 74-71 victory over Vanderbilt Friday in the second round of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. Moments earlier, Mitchell made three consecutive treys in a three-minute span to beat back a Vanderbilt rally.
Mitchell finished with a career-high 31 points on 9-of-15 shooting, including 6-of-12 from 3-point range. It was a surprising turnaround for a player whose shots had been so off-target earlier in the game that he was briefly benched by coach Bob Huggins.
"He came out in the second half and his shots weren't close," Huggins said. "He didn't just miss them. They weren't even close.
"So we took him out and set him down a little bit, and he came back in and to his credit made shots. That's not an easy thing to do. It's like when you're playing golf. When it starts going bad it's really hard to get it turned. Shooting the ball is the same way."
Of course, making shots can be somewhat easier when there are no defenders in your face, and that is what greeted Mitchell when he returned to the court.
After falling behind 46-35, Vanderbilt switched to a zone defense, and the change helped the Commodores go on a 17-6 run and tie the game at 52 with 10 minutes left.
But a zone was exactly what Mitchell wanted to see.
"When they switched [to a zone] my eyes lit up," Mitchell said. "Because in a zone, when the ball gets in the middle, the guards on the wing are pretty much going be wide open. If they have to suck into the middle, that's going to be a wide-open shot. That's an easy shot, like being at the free-throw line."
Mitchell certainly made it look easy. His flurry of 3-pointers propelled the Mountaineers on a 12-1 run and a 66-55 lead with 5:19 to play.
"He just got into a rhythm," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. "We let him have a couple of open looks and missed coverage a couple of times. We just didn't defend that position well enough."
So Vanderbilt switched back to a man-to-man, and the change in defense worked once again. Eleven consecutive points by John Jenkins, who led the Commodores in scoring with 27 points, pulled Vandy into another tie, setting up Mitchell's game-winner.
West Virginia point guard Darryl "Truck" Bryant ran the clock down and then passed to Mitchell on the left wing. Jenkins went for the steal and missed, leaving Mitchell wide open.
"I didn't have to move at all," Mitchell said. "I just took my time, took a deep breath, stepped into the shot and let it go."
Huggins said he called for two different plays on that possession, one against a zone defense and one for a man-to-man.
"I had all veterans out there, so they knew what I wanted done," Huggins said. "And [Bryant] was smart enough to get Casey the ball."
Vanderbilt had one final chance to tie the game. But with Jenkins well guarded, the pass went to freshman Rod Odom, whose shot from the top of the 3-point arc was contested by John Flowers and bounced off the back of the rim.
"That was a heck of a game," Stallings said. "My hat is off to West Virginia. They played hard. They're a tough team. We could have won, but they played a little better than we did and made a few more plays than we did. They deserved to win."
The Mountaineers advance to play either North Carolina or Minnesota in the championship game of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. After an off day on today, the championship game will be held at 7:30 p.m. EST Sunday and be televised by ESPN2.
West Virginia 74, Vanderbilt 71
Player FG FT R A P
Jeffery Taylor 1-4 3-3 1 1 5
Andre Walker 1-2 0-0 4 2 2