By Greg Hunter
For a whole year, the upset at the hands of Stephen F. Austin in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament drove the Mountaineer men’s basketball team.
The memories of that evening in Brooklyn pulled the players out of bed for 6 a.m. conditioning workouts last summer, kept them straining when Bob Huggins’ practices got tough and were upmost on their minds as the 2017 NCAA Tourney approached.
On Thursday afternoon in Buffalo’s KeyBank Center, those demons were finally exorcised, as West Virginia pushed past Bucknell, 86-80, in this year’s tourney opener.
WVU led for all but five minutes against the Bison, but the Mountaineer advantage was never truly comfortable until they sealed the win by converting 9-of-10 foul shots in the final minute.
Bucknell jumped out to an early 7-3 advantage, as BU center Nana Foulland led the charge, scoring 13 of his 18 points in the first half.
But then West Virginia came roaring back with a 24-5 run over a five-minute stretch midway through the first half to give the Mountaineers a lead that they would never again relinquish. But the 15-point bulge WVU enjoyed at that moment wouldn’t last long.
“They got their ball to their big man often, and he was very efficient. I thought he played extremely well,” WVU senior forward Nate Adrian said of Foulland. “Him and a few others played extremely well. They were tough to guard. Kimbal (MacKenzie, BU guard) had five threes.”
Four of MacKenzie’s three-pointers and 14 of his game-high 23 points came in the second half, as the Bison kept the game close. WVU held a 42-33 lead at halftime but never could pull away. Bucknell pared that West Virginia advantage down to three at several junctures throughout the second half. But the Mountaineers were able to withstand each charge, namely through one old strength (offensive rebounding) and one previous weakness (free throw shooting.
WVU had a 20-6 advantage in second-chance points through its offensive rebounding for the game, which included a 13-2 margin in the second half. They allowed the Mountaineers to pull out a win in a second half in which they missed 16 shots and had seven turnovers on 31 possessions.
“We just knew it was key for us to get offensive rebounds,” explained WVU junior center Elijah Macon, who finished the game with nine points and six rebounds. “Hitting the offensive glass is always key for us, because besides their one big (Foulland), they didn’t have a lot of size. So, we knew we had to take advantage of that. Nate did what Nate always does (12 points and 10 rebounds), and Esa (Ahmad) did a great job as well (15 points and six rebounds). I also think Lamont (West) came in and really was a key (15 points and two rebounds).
“We had to crash the glass, which I think we did pretty well,” added Macon. “We didn’t always finish on shots as well as we would have liked, but we did OK. Our goals coming into the game were to rebound, not settle for jump shots and to attack the rim when their big wasn’t in the game. We weren’t perfect, but we did it well enough.”
Besides dominating the glass, WVU was excellent at the foul line down the stretch to help hold off the Bison. West Virginia had made 67.8 percent of its free throws during the season, but it converted 21-of-29 from the stripe (72.4 percent) Thursday afternoon, including 15 of its final 17 in the last eight minutes.
Offensive rebounds and solid foul shooting allowed West Virginia to overcome a shaky defensive effort that saw the Bison become just the sixth 2016-17 WVU foe – and only the second non-conference opponent – to reach the 80-point mark. “Press” Virginia only rattled Bucknell a few times, as WVU barely held serve in the turnover battle, 15-13, and the resulting points off turnovers, 16-13. But it made up in other areas
“Coach (Huggins) has been telling us for the longest while that turnovers and free throws are going to be the death of us, so if we limit turnovers and make free throws, we’ve got a great chance of winning,” noted Tarik Phillip, who was seven-of-seven from the foul line helping him get to 16 points with no turnovers.
Adrian recorded his third career double-double (12 points and 10 rebounds), while Ahmad, who was slowed in late February by a back injury, checked in with 15 points and six rebounds. It was the junior forward’s third straight double-figure scoring effort dating back to last week’s Big 12 Tournament. In all, five Mountaineers scored in double figures, equaling a season best. The other came in a 107-66 victory over Mississippi Valley State on Nov. 14.
Bucknell (26-9) knew coming into the game that it faced an uphill battle keeping the bigger Mountaineers off the boards, and in the end, that was BU’s biggest undoing.
“The first thing you need to handle against West Virginia is you need to be able to get quality shots,” explained Bison head coach Nathan Davis. “That starts by handling the press. The second part is they’re significantly bigger than we are, and we had to do a better job of keeping them off the boards.
“They were just bigger and more athletic than us, and when they run in the lane and jump, that matters,” continued Davis, who holds a 43-23 record in his two seasons at BU, which swept the Patriot League regular season and tournament titles this year. “We weren’t doing a good job of making enough contact away from the basket to negate their size some. We were trying. I thought we were fighting, but we weren’t doing as well as we could have. Give (WVU) credit for being relentless at that end and not quitting on plays. In a lot of ways, that was the difference in the game.”
With the win, West Virginia improved to 28-27 all-time in NCAA Tournament play, including 10-7 in the eight March Madness appearances it has made in Huggins’ time as the head coach of his alma mater. WVU has also managed to score a first round victory in nine of its last 13 NCAA Tourneys dating back to the mid-‘90s. And in moving beyond the opening game this year, the Mountaineers exorcised a demon that has been lurking for exactly one year.