MORGANTOWN - On an afternoon when West Virginia's five seniors were celebrated in their final home game, Casey Mitchell was pretty much the forgotten man.
After all, Joe Mazzulla and Cam Thoroughman are tough-guy, over-achieving starters and fan favorites. John Flowers is Mr. Enthusiasm and a crowd-pleasing shot-blocker. Jonnie West is, well, Jonnie West. It didn't hurt that dad Jerry made a rare appearance Saturday at the Coliseum.
Mitchell? When he arrived from junior college two years ago, coach Bob Huggins said there would be nights when fans thought he was the best shooter at West Virginia since Fritz Williams, and others when "you'll wonder why I recruited the guy.''
After two up and down years in which Mitchell was perhaps more often the latter than the former, he was as clutch as the Mr. Clutch up in the stands in his final 20 seconds at the Coliseum.
Mitchell's two 3-pointers with time winding down - the first with 17.3 seconds to go and the last with 8.1 left - rallied West Virginia from a five-point deficit and put the Mountaineers in position to beat No. 11 Louisville 72-70 on two free throws by Truck Bryant with 0.6 seconds to play.
The win, in front of a season-high crowd of 15,032 at the Coliseum, wrapped up a first-round bye and the No. 6 seed in this week's Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden. The Mountaineers will play the late game in Wednesday's second round, at about 9:30 p.m., against the winner of Tuesday's game between the No. 11 seed (Marquette) and the No. 14 seed (Providence).
In a game in which inside play dominated things - WVU (20-10, 11-7 Big East) had a 49-25 rebounding advantage and Kevin Jones had a double-double in the first 16 minutes - Mitchell was a non-factor until the final minute. Everyone on West Virginia's roster was a non-factor from the perimeter as the Mountaineers missed 20 of their first 22 3-pointers.
But when 3s were WVU's only hope, Mitchell overcame his own 0-for-3 start from long range by hitting them when they mattered most.
"I was sitting over on the bench and saying to myself that I couldn't go out like this,'' Mitchell said. "If I get back in, I've got to hit a 3.''
Hitting two made it even better.
His first was routine enough, what with WVU trailing 69-64 and hope running out. Even Louisville (23-8, 12-6) seemed OK with giving one up because so little time remained.
But when Peyton Siva missed the front end of a one-and-one at the 16.4-second mark, it put the door wide open. How easily Mitchell and the Mountaineers took advantage was the surprising part.
Mitchell simply took a handoff from Bryant just outside the 3-point line. Expecting a switch from the Louisville defense, Mitchell didn't see one and just shot the ball.
"[Siva] didn't switch,'' Mitchell said. He just stayed there and he was in position, but he stayed low [in a defensive stance]. I just shot it over him.''
Those two shots, however, just got the Mountaineers into an improbable tie. It was in the final second they got the improbable win.
That came when Louisville's Preston Knowles missed his potential game-winning 3-pointer and Bryant rebounded along the baseline. With the clock running down, the game seemed destined for overtime.
But Knowles came all the way across the court and stepped in front of Bryant and fouled him with just 0.6 seconds to go. Bryant calmly made the first to effectively win the game, then made the second even though he shot it straight at the front of the rim in an attempt to miss so that Louisville could not get set and inbound the ball.
"[Coach Bob Huggins] said to miss the second shot and I said no, I didn't want to mess up my percentage,'' Bryant joked. "But I really did try to miss it.''
The last-second heroics by Mitchell and Bryant - each of whom had 10 points - overshadowed some exceptional performances by the Mountaineers up to that point. West Virginia absolutely dominated the boards against the Cardinals. Within that 49-25 rebounding advantage were no less than 25 offensive boards that WVU turned into 22 second-chance points.
Jones was at his absolute best. He had 15 points and 12 rebounds by halftime and finished with 25 and 16. Flowers added 12 points, 12 rebounds and no less than six blocked shots. Thoroughman had a monster first half with eight points and five rebounds before fouling out with just one more rebound.
Louisville had a chance because, despite that huge rebounding disparity, the Cardinals - after missing their first six 3-point attempts - made 8-of-12 in the middle of the game to get things going. Kyle Kuric had five of those and led Louisville with 21 points, while Knowles finished with 15 and Chris Smith 14.
Louisville, regardless of the outcome Saturday, was already locked into the No. 3 seed in this week's league tournament. The Cardinals will play their first game in the Thursday quarterfinals and it will come against West Virginia if the Mountaineers win Wednesday.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickm...@aol.com.
Big East tournament pairings
Pairings for the Big East Conference tournament at Madison Square Garden (second and fourth tip-off times each day are approximate, usually 20 minutes after conclusion of first and third games):