Last year was a disaster. West Virginia flamed out in the first round of the NCAA tournament, a 70-56 loss to Stephen A. Austin.
That upset stung. That upset hung around in the back of their minds. That upset was motivation.
The Mountaineers weren’t going to let that happen again. Even if they didn’t show their best game in KeyBank Center Thursday afternoon.
West Virginia went up by 15 points early, but had to hold off a hard-charging Bucknell team for an 86-80 first-round win. The Mountaineers advance to play Notre Dame in Saturday’s second round.
“Personally, it was on my mind a little bit through our practice,” Nathan Adrian said of carrying last year’s disappointment into this game. “We didn’t have great practices last year, but this year I thought we prepared a little better. We’ve got to play a little better defense, but we’ll fix it.”
After going up 15 points – 27-12 with 12:15 left in the first half – West Virginia collectively relaxed. That wasn’t a good move against Bucknell as the scrappy team from the Patriot League with dead-eye three-point shooting wasn’t just going to fold.
“You know, this year, we’ve been down a couple times,” said Bucknell’s Kimbal Mackenzie, who had a game-high 23 points. “We’ve been down big, and we know we’re a mentally tough team who is able to fight back. We have a lot of weapons and we didn’t panic. We just, you know, tried to win every possession, one possession at a time. And we looked up a couple minutes later and we were back in the game.”
Bucknell found a way to deal with the Mountaineers' pressure and forced them to miss shots. West Virginia went scoreless for over two minutes and the Bison crept closer, making it a 36-33 game late in the first half.
The Mountaineers went on a 6-0 run into halftime and West Virginia regained its double-digit lead early in the second half. Bucknell went on a 14-6 run, capped by a three-pointer from Mackenzie, to cut the lead to 58-55 with 12:22 left in the second, but the Bison would get no closer than three the rest of the way.
Bucknell shot 45.8 percent from the field and hit 9 of 20 from three-point range. There’s a tip of the hat to the Bison but West Virginia knows it needs a much better defensive effort if the Mountaineers want to play past Saturday.
“I think switching to our 1-3-1 today helped us a lot, slowing down their drive a little bit,” Adrian said. “That’s an effort thing. Between now and Saturday, we have to get our heads right and play defense like we know how to.”
The other key component for the Mountaineers – turnovers and free throws. While West Virginia had some trouble at times with 13 turnovers, the team made 21 of 29 free throws, including nine in the final minute to seal the win.
“Coach has been telling us for the longest while that turnovers and free throws are going to be the death of us,” senior Tarik Phillip said. “So if we limit our turnovers and make free throws, you got a great chance of winning.”
Phillip has had battles with the free throw line. But he entered the game hitting 72.2 percent and made 7 of 7, including six free throws in the final minute, to help the Mountaineers advance to a second-round meeting with Notre Dame on Saturday.
“That’s what Tarik does,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said. “You know, Tarik went from being a poor free-throw shooter, and he’s really put a lot of time in. I think he had a streak of maybe 28, 29 in a row and then he missed a couple and then he’s back on another streak. But Tarik puts an enormous amount of time in. And he’s actually listened better. He’s actually listened when we talk to him about how he could improve his shot.”
The Mountaineers dominated the paint, scoring 20 second-chance points on 17 offensive rebounds. Adrian led the way with four on the offensive glass and 10 total rebounds to go with his 12 points and three blocks.
West Virginia had five players in double figures, led by Phillip’s 16, while Esa Ahmad and Lamont West each scored 15, as the Mountaineers took advantage of their size over a smaller Bucknell team.
“When you got a 6-7, 6-8 guy playing against 6-2, 6-3 guys, you ought to have an advantage,” Huggins said.
“We have to get our guards to do a better job. … We miss enough shots, you know, there’s plenty to go around.”