MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP)—The high fives started with Terrence Williams and resonated throughout the Louisville locker room after the sixth-ranked Cardinals survived a scare with West Virginia to claim their first Big East regular-season championship.
Williams scored 20 points and Louisville beat West Virginia 62-59 Saturday night to earn the top seed in what will certainly be a slugfest in the conference tournament that starts Tuesday at New York’s Madison Square Garden.
Louisville (25-5, 16-2) took advantage of third-ranked Pittsburgh’s 70-60 win over No. 1 Connecticut earlier Saturday. Pittsburgh will have the second seed and Connecticut the third seed.
“I still don’t believe it,” Williams said. “We’re just soaking it all in right now.”
The Cardinals head to the tournament with seven straight wins and 17 in their past 19 games. Louisville earned a bye in the first two rounds and will open Thursday in the quarterfinals.
“I am real proud of our basketball team, not only for winning the Big East championship in a year that could be the toughest since the inception,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. “We have been a really good road team the past three years and we had to be tonight.”
Earl Clark added 13 points for Louisville, which couldn’t shake a young West Virginia team down the stretch. Neither team led by more than four points in a tightly contested second half that came down to the final shot.
Jerry Smith made two free throws to put Louisville ahead 62-58 with 12 seconds left. After West Virginia’s Da’Sean Butler made a free throw, Williams was fouled and missed two straight from the line. But Butler’s 3-point attempt bounced off the rim as time ran out.
Freshman Kevin Jones scored a season-high 19 points for West Virginia (21-10, 10-8) and freshman Devin Ebanks added 16.
Alex Ruoff, West Virginia’s second-leading scorer who averages 16.3 points, was held scoreless for the first time all season.
“We talked for two days about not throwing it to (Louisville) for baskets,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said. “And when the game got separated a little bit, that’s what we did. We threw it to them for baskets.”
West Virginia still earned a first-round tournament bye and will play Wednesday night against the winner of Notre Dame and Rutgers.
“We’re not done,” Huggins said. “We’re a long way from being done.”
The Mountaineers were locked into the tournament’s No. 7 seed no matter the outcome of Saturday’s game, but there was an extra level of anticipation.
Jerry West and several teammates from West Virginia’s 1958-59 team were there to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of the Mountaineers’ run to the NCAA championship game, where they lost by a point to California.
The current West Virginia squad couldn’t capitalize on the feel-good atmosphere.
West Virginia missed 11 of its first 12 shots and twice fell behind by 10 points in the first half. The Mountaineers tied it with a late 10-0 run, but Williams’ 3-pointer with 1 second left put the Cardinals ahead 32-29 at halftime.
With Ruoff, West Virginia’s only senior, on the bench in foul trouble for most of the second half, Jones and Ebanks kept the game close.
Jones scored six points early in the second half and Butler’s three-point play with 12:10 left put West Virginia ahead 41-40, its first lead since the opening basket.
Ebanks’ layup with 5:23 left gave the Mountaineers their final lead 54-52, but Clark’s 3-pointer put Louisville ahead to stay 55-54 with 4:36 left.
“This environment was tough, but we’ve played at Kentucky and at Syracuse with a record crowd all screaming that they hate us,” Williams said. “It was different here though. It was all gold and Jerry West was in the crowd.”