It was West Virginia's shooting, however, that made the difference in the opening half and helped the Mountaineers build a 12-point advantage at the break. WVU made ten of its 20 shots in the first period, including 7-15 from long range, to help overcome SIU's intense defensive pressure. Despite play that more than one Mountaineer called the most physical it has encountered all year. WVU was able to shake free for enough shots in the first half to put the 11th-ranked Salukis in a hole from which it could not escape.
"That team was a terrific defensive team," head coach John Beilein said afterward. "I think after we shot the ball real well in the first half, a lot of teams might have gone out in the second and not had the guts to go face that again, because it's hard to play an offense against that team. And I am so proud of the way we responded. They're very aggressive."
Beilein's closing sentence was something of an understatement, as the Salukis, grabbed, held, and forearm shivered their way through the contest. Those tactics kept WVU's free-flowing offense from running smoothly, but the Mountaineers responded by driving to the basket aggressively, then shooting over the scrambling SIU defense as the half progressed. The result was a 36-24 halftime lead that had West Virginia feeling good about its position for the final twenty minutes, as Southern Illinois didn't have the firepower to make up such a deficit.
Still, the Salukis were very much in the game in the second half, and appeared to be poised to make a run when Jamal Tatum, who tied for team-high honors with 12 points, hit a three-pointer from the corner to cut WVU's lead to 10 at 47-37 with 10:10 to play. The Mountaineers had several opportunities to blow the game open before that point, but poor shooting (4-17 from the At that point, however, the Mountaineer defense clamped down while the offense came to life. Kevin Pittsnogle slipped behind the Saluki defense for a layup, Mike Gansey and Frank Young tallied back to back layups, and Patrick Beilein and Gansey gunned in threes to build WVU's lead to 22 and squash any hopes of an SIU upset.
"They have extremely good shooters," Saluki head coach Chris Lowery said. They do what they do well, and they countered what we do well. I don't know if there is a better shooting team in the country. We pride ourselves on defense and they got us."
West Virginia was led by Kevin Pittsnogle's 18 points, 12 of which came in the lane. The sharpshooting center made just two of his seven three-pointers, but was able to operate effectively against SIU's shorter front line. Mike Gansey added ten points, all in a quick burst in the second half, but was ineffective offensively for much of the game. The slack, however, was nicely picked up by Patrick Beilein (nine points), Frank Young (eight), and Darris Nichols (seven.) Even Alex Ruoff (a three pointer) and Rob Summers (two) contributed as every Mountaineer who played in the game scored. SIU put just two players, Tatum and forward Matt Shaw, in double figures with 12.
For one of the few times this year, WVU outrebounded its foe, getting 31 to SIU's 26. WVU took just 50 shots in the game, but made 22.
The Mountaineers face Northwestern State, upset winners over Iowa, in the second round on Sunday at approximately 2:40 p.m. Former WVU center D'or Fischer began his career with the Demons before transferring to West Virginia for his final two seasons.