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Beilein’s Believers wore 2007 NIT laurels

By Staff | Jan 25, 2019

SHEPHERDSTOWN — Which WVU basketball team had the same five starters in all 36 games it played?

Which Mountaineer team had only two seniors, Frank Young and Rob Summers, and still won 27 games?

Which team defeated second-ranked UCLA and rival Marshall during the regular season?

Which team defeated Delaware State, Massachusetts and North Carolina State in Morgantown in the first three rounds of the National Invitational Tournament?

Answer: the 2007 team coached by John Beilein that went on to beat Mississippi State, 63-62, in the NIT semifinals, and then claimed the tournament’s championship, with a 78-73 win over Clemson in the late-March finals.

It was a season with nagging losses toward the close of the regular season and couldn’t produce an NCAA Tournament bid when it lost to Louisville in double overtime in the second round of the Big East Tournament.

The record was 22-9 when the NIT bid came.

The five starters in all 36 games were six-foot-five senior Frank Young, six-foot-three junior Darris Nichols, six-foot-six sophomore Alex Ruoff, six-foot-eight sophomore Joe Alexander and seven-foot senior Rob Summers.

Young was the leading scorer with a 15.3 average. Four other players, including freshman reserve Da’Sean Butler, also scored in double figures with Nichols at 10.9, Ruoff at 10.3, Alexander at 10.3 and Butler at 10.1.

After a rousing beginning in Big East play, the Mountaineers gradually lost ground to the front runners and finished with a 9-7 record in conference games.

It was a team known for its close-knit enthusiasm, 1-3-1 halfcourt defense, and intricate half-court offense, featuring an infinite amount of backdoor cuts and arsenal of three-point shot attempts. Even the seven-footers launched three-point shots.

Besides the most-used six players already mentioned, the other prominent team members were freshman Joe Mazzulla, freshman Wellington Smith and junior Jamie Smalligan.

When the 32-team NIT field was selected, WVU, Mississippi State, Clemson and Air Force received number one seeds and would have home games as long as they kept winning. As usual, the tournament semifinals and finals would take place at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

In Morgantown, the Mountaineers beat Delaware State, a team with 22 wins, 74-50, in the first round. A 90-77 win over Massachusetts followed, and in the tournament quarterfinals, West Virginia edged North Carolina State, 71-66.

The other number one seeds — Air Force, Clemson and Mississippi State — all rode into New York after winning the home games they played.

In the semifinals, it was point guard Nichols who wore the snuggest-fitting hero’s cape when he made a three-pointer just before the final horn, lifting the Mountaineers to an electrifying, 63-62, win.

West Virginia had trailed by 14 points early in the second half, but steadily rallied thereafter. The Bulldogs still had a two-point lead when WVU had an out-of-bounds possession with 2.1 seconds remaining. Nichols launched his make-or-break shot with his feet only inches behind the three-point line and less than a second to play.

Nichols scored the last of his 17 points on the hold-your-breath shot-attempt.

Into the finals, the Mountaineers broke out to a 38-26 lead against Clemson. The Tigers chewed away at their deficit but never whittled all the points off WVU’s lead. Frank Young scored a game-high 24 points on 7-for-10 shooting from the field and was selected as the tournament’s Most Valuable Player.

It was WVU’s first post-season, national tournament championship in 65 years or since the 1942 NIT title.

A banner now hangs from the ceiling in the Coliseum denoting the 2007 NIT heroics, and helping recall the popularity of a team that cared about much more than individual stats or playing time or if their chances of being a professional player are being compromised by being at West Virginia University.