Thursday , Mar , 29 , 2007 C.Y. Ellis

West Virginia battles Clemson for NIT title

New York, NY (Sports Network) – The 70th-annual NIT comes to a close this
evening in New York City, as the West Virginia Mountaineers and the Clemson
Tigers battle one another on the floor of Madison Square Garden for the
tournament title.

The Tigers are seeking their first postseason crown of any kind, having never
won the NIT or NCAA Tournament. The only postseason crown in Clemson history
came in the Southern Conference Tournament in 1939. It certainly didn’t come
easy for Oliver Purnell’s squad, which tied a school record for wins in a
season this year, grabbing its 25th victory on Tuesday with a 68-67
decision over Air Force in the NIT Semifinals. Prior to that, Clemson
navigated the tournament field with wins over East Tennessee State
(64-57), Ole Miss (89-68) and Syracuse (74-70).

The Mountaineers have a bit more postseason seasoning, as this will be
their third all-time appearance in a postseason final. The team won the
1942 NIT and was runner-up in the 1959 NCAA Tournament. John Beilein’s
team is a solid 26-9 on the season and has found its way to the
title game with victories over Delaware State (74-50), UMass (90-77),
NC State (71-66) and finally Mississippi State (63-62) on Tuesday. The
win over the Bulldogs this week marked Beilein’s 550th in his career.

These two teams are meeting for just the fourth time, with West Virginia
holding a 2-1 series edge. The last meeting came in the 1994 NIT, with
Clemson taking a 96-79 decision in Morgantown.

It has been a team-effort for the Mountaineers in this event, but no one
player has meant more to his team in the tournament than senior Frank Young.
The 6-5 veteran is averaging a gaudy 22.3 ppg in four tourney games and is
shooting 63 percent from the field, including 64 percent from beyond the arc.
On the season, Young leads the team in scoring at 15.1 ppg. Young has set the
school-record for three-pointers in a season (111) and is shooting .422 from
long range on the year. Three others follow in double digits, with Darris
Nichols (10.8 ppg), Joe Alexander (10.6 ppg) and Alex Ruoff (10.4 ppg) all
making their presence felt in the scoring column. Da’Sean Butler is a valuable
asset off the bench as well, at 9.8 ppg.

In the one-point victory over Mississippi State on Tuesday, it was
Nichols who was the hero as he hit a three-pointer as time expired to lift
the Mountaineers to the come-from-behind win and into the title game. WVU
shot just .365 from the floor, but placed three players in double figures,
starting with Nichols (17 points). Young had another solid outing, going 6-
of-13 from the floor and 4-of-8 from three-point range, to finish with 16
points. Ruoff chipped in with 10 points to go with five rebounds and four

The Tigers had a similar Final Four appearance, as they held off a tough Air
Force squad, posting a 68-67 victory and advancing to tonight’s championship
game. Clemson did find a way to fight through Air Force’s vaunted defense,
shooting .591 from the floor, including a sizzling .684 in the second half
(13-of-19). K.C. Rivers led four starters in double figures with 19 points.
Rivers was 6-of-11 from the floor in the game, including 5-of-10 from behind
the arc. Center Trevor Booker added 13 points, while Vernon Hamilton and
Cliff Hammonds chipped in with 11 points apiece. Hamilton just missed a
double-double, as he doled out nine assists.

It has been a lot of the same for Clemson offensively this season, as all
five starters are averaging double figures. Rivers has come off the bench
for the most part this year, but that hasn’t stopped him from pacing the
team in scoring (13.9 ppg). Rivers is shooting .463 from the floor,
including .401 from behind the arc (85-of-212). James Mays (12.3 ppg, 6.5 rpg)
and Booker (10.3 ppg, 6.4 rpg) are a formidable duo in the frontcourt, while
Hamilton (12.2 ppg) and Hammonds (10.3 ppg) join Rivers to provide adequate
perimeter balance.