The Mountaineers, who had pushed past Texas and Kansas State in the Big 12 Championship with rather pedestrian performances, got another in the NCAA opening round but were able to utilize superior numbers to find the same on the scoreboard. WVU used five scorers in double figures and a massive 32-point advantage in bench scoring to move on to a second round match-up against Notre Dame as both both higher seeds advanced.
Tarik Phillip and Lamont West came off the bench to lead WVU with 16 and 15 points, respectively, as the Mountaineers flexed their depth to overwhelm Bucknell and eventually cause the Patriot League champs to wilt down the stretch. Riding a 77-72 lead with a minute left, West Virginia converted nine of their final 10 free throws to secure their third NCAA Tournament win in as many years despite the latest in a series of mediocre performances.
"I didn't think we played defense very well," said forward Nate Adrian, who recorded the third double-double of his career with 12 points and 10 rebounds. "I think switching on the 1-3-1 today helped us a lot, kind of slowing down their drive a little bit. That's an effort thing. Between now and Saturday, we have to get our heads right and play defense like we know how to. But we gave up 80 points. You can't do that in the NCAA Tournament."
At least not against teams who could better take advantage. Bucknell played the game it wanted, handling the press for the vast majority of the time and managing to find open looks for three-pointers from the corner. The Bison also got a standout performance from forward Nana Foulland, the league's Defensive Player of the Year. Foulland had 18 points and seven rebounds and managed to limit the Mountaineer forwards on the interior. But the sheer numbers and talent advantage eventually reared its head, as Esa Ahmad added 15 points and Jevon Carter had 11 while Elijah Macon scored nine. The ability to spread the scoring and minutes around kept the Mountaineers fresh, especially against a smaller team that used just a six-man rotation.
The Bison were able to hit shots, as guard Kimbal Mackenzie connected on 5-of-7 three-point attempts while backcourt mate Stephen Brown hit a trio of treys. The 24 points via threes, most coming in critical stretches where WVU threatened to pull away, kept Bucknell close and infused a dose of confidence heading into the final 10 minutes. That was when West Virginia, leading 62-57, went back to its 1-3-1 zone. That limited the Bison to just one field goal over the next four minutes and two over the next six. But both were Mackenzie threes, and West Virginia could never pull away.
"What Bucknell did was make shots," WVU head coach Bob Huggins said. "They don't always make shots that well. McKenzie's 5-for-7 from three and Steven Brown hit some big threes. Seemed like every time we started to get away from them a little bit, they made a three. And Foulland is really a good player. He's a really good player in any league. He's athletic, and not just at the offensive end, he changed so many shots. He really disrupted us, I think, offensively, with the shot-blocking ability."
The Mountaineers never fully locked up the win until Bucknell missed on consecutive trips inside the final minute and Phillip hit four free throws to boost the advantage to 83-74 with 26 seconds left. Carter then added three more free throws, keeping the Bison at bay even as Bucknell hit two threes in the last 22 seconds for the final margin.
"Coach 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, you got a great chance of winning," Phillip said.
The game was a series of runs during the first half. West Virginia went on a 17-2 push, including a streak of 13 points in a row, in taking a 27-12 lead at the 12:15 mark. The Mountaineers hit four lay-ups during the run, and forced Bucknell into three turnovers during the three-minute stretch, to take advantage by scoring 10 points in 64 seconds.
The Bison, appearing on the ropes early, responded with a 21-9 scoring run after getting a handle on the press. With Foulland controlling the interior, Bucknell's guards began quickly getting the ball up the floor, giving the Bison a numbers edge they used to attack the bucket and create open looks. A one-time 15-point West Virginia lead was trimmed to just 36-33 over a period of nine minutes, pulling the underdogs within one possession with 3:24 left in the half.
The Mountaineers, briefly stunned by Bucknell's execution, rebounded quite literally to use their size advantage inside and finish on a 6-0 spurt to take the 42-33 lead into the break. Bucknell was held scoreless over the last 4:16 of the first period, and the Mountaineers could have had a larger lead if not for a trio of missed lay-ins over the final minute-plus.
Fourth-seeded West Virginia (27-8) now advances to face five-seed Notre Dame in the second round. The Irish defeated 12th-seeded Princeton 60-58 in the initial game of the session in Buffalo. Bucknell finishes the season at 26-9.