Sugar Sweet!

West Virginia built a 25-point lead, then held off hard-charging Northwestern State to advance to the Sweet 16 for the second time in as many years with a 67-54 win Sunday at The Palace of Auburn Hills, Mich.

The No. 22 Mountaineers (22-10) led 48-23 with 17:09 left on two Johannes Herber free throws. Northwestern State (26-8) cut the lead to nine over the next 10 minutes. It hit two 3-pointers, including one by Keenan Jones to cap his nine straight points and pull the Demons within 53-44 with 7:18 left. WVU responded with four consecutive free throws – two each from Kevin Pittsnogle and J.D. Collins – to push the lead back to double figures.

Northwestern State got within 10 twice more, but could pull no closer. West Virginia hit 10 of 14 free throws in the final 6:49 to effectively seal the game. The Mountaineers made just four second-half field goals and shot 20 percent (four-for-20) after a sizzling first half in which it built a 41-19 lead.

WVU's final first half score came on backup point guard Darris Nichols banked 3-pointer from beyond halfcourt as time expired.

"When that halfcourt shot when in, well, I thought back to what my mother always said," WVU head coach John Beilein said. "Watch the other shoe drop."

And drop it did, while none of West Virginia's shots would do the same. It went 0-for-10 during NW State's rally. Herber, Pittsnogle and Collins compounded the problem by picking up their fourth fouls, and for the next five minutes it seemed as thought the 14th-seeded Demons might pull another shocker following its 17-point rally in the final eight minutes over three-seed Iowa on Friday.

"It's almost the worst thing to be up by that much," Beilein said. "It may have got us in trouble, but we were aggressive. If we were going to lose, we were not going to be overly conservative."

West Virginia was led by Pittsnogle's 14 points. The senior hit just three of 14 shots and missed five of six 3-pointers, but converted seven of eight foul shots. The sixth-seeded Mountaineers, which continued to drive to the basket and who also got fouled on a 3-point try, made 24 of 33 free throws for the game.

"I didn't shoot that well, but kept getting to the free throw line and my teammates picked me up," Pittsnogle said. "We stayed with it. I think they tried to be physical and take us out of things, but we responded well."

Mike Gansey, hurt by cramps in the final eight minutes, managed 12 rebounds and 11 points. He played his normal stoically-solid game away from the ball and also added two steals and one assist. He was reinserted and taken out multiple times for fluids and calf stretching. His first cramp caused him to miss an open lay-up.

"We played as hard as we can," Gansey said. "We wanted this. When you play hard like that, you get cramps."

Collins scored 10 points and had four steals and showed fierce physicality and ball handling in brilliantly managing the offense. Frank Young also had 10 with six rebounds, two assists and one blocked shot. Patrick Beilein added nine points to lead WVU's bench, which scored 16 points.

Jones and Clifton Lee each scored 11 points to pace the Demons. Jermaine Wallace, who hit the game-winning 3-pointer against Iowa, finished with nine. It was just the second time this season that NW State had a game already decided in the final minute.

WVU won its first two NCAA games for the second straight year. It is the first time in school history that the Mountaineers have done so. They advanced to the second round in consecutive years for the first time since 1959-60 – when Jerry West led the team – with its first-round, 64-46 win over 11th-seeded Southern Illinois. Then, the tournament was not a one-loss elimination format, so WVU did win multiple games in both years, but not its first two games.

"That's a credit to our coaching staff," Gansey said. "It's great to be mentioned with people like Jerry West. But our coaches really get us going. We are thrilled to be where we are."

The wins are indeed rarified air for West Virginia. One year ago on this day, March 19, then No. 7 seed WVU defeated No. 2 seed Wake Forest in double overtime. This year it plays the winner of No. 10 seed N.C. State or No. 2 seed Texas on Thursday in an Atlanta Region game in the Georgia Dome, where just 2 ½ months ago West Virginia beat Georgia in the Sugar Bowl in the biggest postseason win in school history.

"We go wherever they tell me to go," Beilein said. "We just want to keep winning. To get to this point is very rewarding. I am grateful to have this chance. We have tough kids."

The Mountaineers, as they had in the opening first two games last year, trailed 6-2 early. But West Virginia's 16-1 run in the middle of the first half turned the deficit into an 18-7 lead with 10:20 left. WVU would continue to extend the lead, using putbacks, 3-pointers and solid defense for the 41-19 lead at the break.

Nearly every advantage in the half went to West Virginia, which hit 53.8 percent of its shots, including six of 14 3-pointers, in a dominant 20 minutes. The run was spurred by eight inside points and just two 3-pointers, a switch in the usual WVU spurts. Gansey started the push with a bucket off a runout and also hit the last field goal on a backdoor lay-in. Pittsnogle polished off the push with a free throw.

In between, Collins had four points, including a 3-pointer, and Beilein also hit a three.

"We did not have a lot of turnovers, but we missed layups," Beilein said. "We did not allow it to affect us on the other end."

The same could not be said for Northwestern State, which struggled with WVU's unique 1-3-1 zone defense. It had seven turnovers in the first seven minutes and finished with 17 at the half.

Demons' head coach Mike McConathy was called for a technical with 1:23 left and his team trailing 34-19. The call came after Young hit an inside bucket off what McConathy viewed as a push off. Pittsnogle made both resulting free throws and Young got to the foul line for two more before Nichols banked in the 3-pointer from beyond half court as time expired.

The 18-7 run essentially took Northwestern State out of the game for the next 15 minutes. West Virginia continued to pound the Demons, outscoring them 23-12 over the final 10:20 and 9-0 in the final two minutes of the first half. There should have been no let down because NW State was down 21 to Mississippi State and won and had tallied seven wins when trailing by as many as 10, and five when trialing by 10 in the second half.

The Demons failed to become the first No. 14 seed to reach the regional semifinals in nine years. They became the lowest seed to advance in the tournament when they beat Iowa. It marked the seventh time this season the Demons had rallied from a double-figure deficit to win, and Friday's upset was the school's first victory over a Top 25 team. They finished with wins over schools from the Big 12, SEC, Pac-10 and Big Ten and were the first Southland Conference team in the second round since Louisiana Tech in 1985.

Pittsnogle now has 32 points in the two tournament games. WVU has 18 3-pointers in two games, two off its season average of 10 per game. It hit just seven, one more then NW State's six, but are now 60 for 145 (41.4 percent) in its last six NCAA Tournament games.

"Everybody was excited and happy that we won, but we played so hard that we did not show it going to the locker room," Collins said. "We have won so much in that last couple of years that nobody gets too high or low. If you do that, you never know when it will end."

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