The Mountaineers turned to the double-double of Nate Adrian, the interior toughness of Elijah Macon and the offensive execution of Lamont West and Esa Ahmad in turning away a significant challenge in an 86-80 victory. Adrian continually scrapped for rebounds, diving on the floor for loose balls and to secure possessions. Macon showed his mettle by scoring nine points and grabbing six physical boards, as well as taking a rocket shot of a pass directly off his face. Ahmad hit for 15 points and six rebounds and West was arguably at his best, mixing a series of drives to the bucket with a 6-for-7 effort from the floor which included a pair of three-pointers.
It was, in all, among the most well-rounded offensive interior performances by the Mountaineers (27-8) this season, and nearly all of it was needed to hold of a game Bucknell team which canned nine threes in 20 attempts (45 percent) to stay close.
"I felt like the way they were closing out, I could go right past them and shoot a lay-up," said West, who connected on just his second and third three-pointers over the last seven games since setting a new career high with 23 points on six threes on Feb. 20 versus Texas. "The coaches were needing some buckets in the paint and I was able to do that with some points in the paint. My teammates were hyping me up, saying I wasn't a bad shooter. I was in a slump and now I feel like I am out of the slump."
Perhaps. West was able to better utilize his 6-8 length against the smaller Bison, who started just one player 6-8 or taller in forward Nana Foulland. With Foulland forced to match-up against Macon, and 6-7 forward Zach Thomas battling Adrian, West often drew a defender over which he had a significant height and length edge. He took advantage, getting past defenders trying to quickly close on the shooter as their momentum carried them out of the play. He tallied as many points (15) as minutes played, and was incredibly efficient in the process.
""We weren't at our best; we could be better," West said. "We had it but we would get lackadaisical sometimes and we would give them confidence and they were hitting shots. That's not our ceiling. That wasn't our best performance. We could do better, but we came out with the win."
Which is truly all that matters at this point in the season. And while West Virginia was far from its best on the defensive end - the Mountaineers allowed 80 points for just the fifth time this season, and the third in a non-overtime game - they made up for it offensively. WVU shot 45.5 percent from both the field and three-point range and had a 42-32 rebounding edge that included 17 off the offensive glass. That led to 20 second-chance points, nearly one quarter of the team total.
"I took it upon myself to try and score the ball more in the paint," said Macon, who was hit in the left side of his face with a hard pass in the first half and suffered blurry vision through halftime. "I knew I did pretty bad the first half. So I put it in my head to attack their bigs and keep going until they call a foul or until (the shots) go in. That was my plan. We were playing hesitant. It's the heat of the moment, the NCAA Tournament and everybody wants to make the right decision."
Macon and Adrian combined to secure the fourth foul on Foulland with 9:37 left, and the Patriot League Defensive Player of the Year was held out until there was 4:22 left. That was too little, too late as WVU had forged a 73-65 lead on a pair of Ahmad free throws. WVU managed just one field goal from there, a Jevon Carter three with 3:44 remaining, but used 10 free throws in 12 attempts to lock down the win and advance to a second round game against five-seed Notre Dame on Saturday. Th Irish, which also play a slow down style, figure to be better able to match the Mountaineers on the interior. But for now, West Virginia will take the win - and a healing Macon, who recovered nicely from the inadvertent pass to the face.
"He threw it 100 miles per hour and I was shook up for a minute," Macon said. "I couldn't see for the first half out of my left eye. But I took care of it at halftime and came out in the second half and played my best. I had to wash it three or four times. I just couldn't get going, couldn't see anything until I came out of the game. But it was taken care of and that's the important part."