West Virginia 63, Mississippi State 62
NEW YORK (AP)—Trailing by two with 2 seconds remaining, West Virginia was thinking victory instead of overtime.
Darris Nichols hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to lift West Virginia to 63-62 victory over Mississippi State in the semifinals of the NIT at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night.
“We said we were not going to take a 2, but we would win the game,” Mountaineers coach John Beilein said. “The first option was Darris, and the second would have been Frank (Young). If they guard one, you know we felt good about either one.”
Nichols finished with 17 points and Frank Young added 16 to help the Mountaineers (26-9) advance to the NIT finals for the first time since winning the title in 1942. West Virginia, which had lost its last three appearances in the semifinals, will face Clemson in the finals on Thursday night. The Tigers held off Air Force 68-67 in the later game.
Nichols, whose basket capped a wild sequence in the final minute, wasn’t sure if his basket was a 2-pointer or a 3.
“I knew we needed a 3 to win it, so I just stepped back,” Nichols said. “I was a little in doubt because I didn’t know where I was on the floor.”
Beilein said he got the winning play from one-time Nebraska coach Danny Nee at his coaching clinic in November.
“We had a scrimmage at the end of our clinic with a couple hundred coaches there,” Beilein said. “It ended up being a tie with like 2 seconds to go … I had Danny huddle with my team. … We didn’t make it, did we?”
After Young confirmed they didn’t, Beilein added: “I’m glad we made it in (the game) and not in the coaching clinic.”
West Virginia came back from a 14-point deficit in the second half and took a 60-59 lead when Jamie Smalligan made 2-of-3 free throws with 53 seconds left.
Barry Stewart’s jumper regained Mississippi State’s lead 9 seconds later.
The Mountaineers then had three chances on the offensive end. Young missed a 3, Smalligan got the rebound and missed a short jumper, and Da’Sean Butler missed a layup attempt. Jamont Gordon got the rebound for the Bulldogs, was fouled by Butler and made one free throw with 16.3 seconds left to give Mississippi State a 62-60 lead.
Nichols missed a 3 with 5 seconds left, but the Mountaineers got the rebound and called timeout with 2.1 to go.
On the ensuing play, Bulldogs coach Rick Stansbury was on the court screaming for a timeout before Alex Ruoff inbounded the ball, but the coach wasn’t seen by the officials. After Nichols’ game-winning shot, Stansbury slammed the table.
“It was a great play,” Gordon said. “(Nichols) set me up like he was going to come off a double screen and he just faded away. I got screened a little bit and he knocked down the shot.”
The postgame handshakes were delayed briefly as the officials huddled around the courtside monitor to check if any time remained after Nichols’ basket. After about 3 minutes, the officials ruled the 3-pointer good, and no time was left.
“They made that last play they had to make to win the game,” Stansbury said. “I told our team that’s just one play, a play that changed the score at the end of the basketball game.”
Dietric Slater had 18 points and nine rebounds to lead Mississippi State (21-14). Gordon added 11 points, and Charles Rhodes had 10 points and 10 rebounds.
Ruoff had 10 points and Robert Summers grabbed nine rebounds for West Virginia.
The Mountaineers, who made 17 3s in a win over Providence in the Big East tournament at the Garden on March 7, finished 7-for-23 from beyond the arc against Mississippi State. Young was 4-for-8 to increase his single-season school-record to 111.
The Bulldogs used a 22-5 run spanning halftime to take a 44-30 lead with 15:51 left in the game.
“We got a big lead, and had some chances to seal it,” Stansbury said, “and we didn’t make some plays when we needed to make them.”
West Virginia missed its first six 3s of the second half until Young hit his fourth of the game to start a 7-0 run that pulled the Mountaineers to 48-43 with 9:45 left. Butler made a free throw and a layup, and Nichols hit a 3 to get West Virginia within 50-49 with 8:23 to go.
Slater’s third 3 pushed the Bulldogs’ lead to 55-51 nearly 2 minutes later, and Rhodes and Gordon had layups to make it 59-53 with 4:05 left.
Smalligan hit a 3 and Ruoff had a driving layup to get West Virginia within one with 2:40 to go, and set up the frantic final minute.