PISCATAWAY, N.J. - It wasn't quite as simple as lining up and dominating a smaller team, but just before tip-off Sunday at The RAC, Cam Thoroughman looked down to the other end of the floor where Rutgers was warming up and had a bit of an epiphany.
"I was in warm-ups looking down there and I said, 'Boys, we can outrebound these guys today,''' Thoroughman recalled just after West Virginia's 65-54 win over Rutgers. "I told that to John [Flowers] and K.J. [Kevin Jones] and Turk [Deniz Kilicli] and we kind of took it on ourselves to do it.''
A couple of hours later, the Mountaineers had dominated the boards, outrebounded the Scarlet Knights by 15 and had a win that just might have put them over the top in terms of an NCAA tournament berth.
Flowers had 14 points and 10 rebounds, Jones had 12 points and 11 boards, Truck Bryant kept the Mountaineers in things at the beginning with 11 of his 15 points before halftime and Joe Mazzulla dished out nine assists. But it was WVU's dominance of the boards in the second half and clutch free-throw shooting that allowed it to pull away and win in the final 21/2 minutes.
The win gives the Mountaineers (18-10, 9-7 Big East), if nothing else, a bit of momentum heading into crucial home games this week that will ultimately decide their seeding in the Big East tournament. WVU faces No. 14 Connecticut on Wednesday and No. 16 Louisville Saturday to close out the regular season.
Regardless of the outcome of those two games, however, West Virginia now seems fairly secure in its quest for a fourth straight NCAA berth in four years under Bob Huggins. Going into Sunday's game, the Mountaineers were No. 20 in the RPI and had the No. 3 strength of schedule in the country.
But West Virginia will probably have to win at least one of its final two games in order to finish in the top half of the Big East standings and avoid playing a first-round game in the league tournament next week. Heading into the week, the Mountaineers are in a tie for seventh place with no less than five other teams.
"I'm just glad we're 9-7 in the conference instead of 7-9, which we very well could be in this league,'' Thoroughman said. "It's been a long year, a tough year, and it's not over yet.''
Sunday was a long, tough game, too, despite the opponent being a Rutgers team that is now 13-15 overall and 4-12 in the league. The Mountaineers failed to take advantage of their size advantage (RU's tallest starter was 6-foot-8 freshman Gilvydas Biruta and the Knights don't have much bulk, either) in the first half and had to depend on Bryant's shooting to take a 25-22 lead.
In the second half, though, things changed. Rutgers did manage a few short-lived leads thanks mainly to guard Mike Coburn (20 points) driving into the lane, but over the long haul West Virginia outrebounded the Knights 23-9 in the second half and eventually took a 50-42 lead on a possession that typified WVU's advantage.