Bitter Ending to WVU's Sweet Era

West Virginia's potential storybook comeback was erased as Kenton Paulino hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to lift No. 2 seed Texas past the sixth-seeded Mountaineers 74-71 early Friday morning in Atlanta.

The arcing shot came after Kevin Pittsnogle tied the game at 71-71 with five seconds left on a 3-pointer from the top of the key. Pittsnogle hit the shot after reentering the game after a nosebleed and almost brought WVU back to the Elite Eight for the second time in as many years. Instead, West Virginia finishes 22-11 and Texas (30-6), with the most wins in school history, faces four-seed LSU, an upset winner over No. 1 seed Duke, in the regional finals.

The Mountaineers rallied from down 12 at the half and actually led, 61-58, with 7:16 left on a Mike Gansey 3-pointer. Texas reclaimed the lead on seven straight points and WVU could get no closer than the 71-71 tie on Pittsnogle's 3-pointer. That followed a missed free throw by LaMarcus Aldridge which gave WVU a chance.

Aldridge continued where he left off, ripping West Virginia for a career-high 26 points on 11 of 13 shooting from the field. The performance came after he beat WVU in the final 3.9 seconds in the teams' first meeting this season when he hit a putback lay-up and then blocked Gansey's attempt to win the game at the other end.

Aldridge came off a poor performance in the win over N.C. State. He hit just two of nine shots, but made his first nine shots against West Virginia, which was overwhelmed inside. P.J. Tucker finished with 15 points for Texas while A.J. Abrams had nine and Paulino added eight.

WVU was led by its usual tandem of Pittsnogle, who scored 19, and Gansey (18). It got more balanced scoring efforts as Patrick Beilein added 14 before fouling out with 13.9 seconds left on a forced foul on Aldridge and Jo Herber scored 13 and again provided the proverbial glue and inside grit West Virginia lacked.

The Mountaineer rally started early in the second half when it began to assert itself inside. It had hit just one inside shot in the first half, and that was with four seconds left when J.D. Collins hit a jumper just inside the arc. Its other seven field goals were all 3-pointers, and it was getting pushed farther from the basket and had no inside game to counter the dominance of Texas and especially Aldridge.

That changed in the second half when West Virginia opened with a 10-1 run to pull within 40-37. Pittsnogle started and ended the run, hitting a 3-pointer to start the half and scoring inside with 16:07 left. The teams continued to battle over the next eight minutes. UT never led by any more than six, and that came on Mike Williams' jumper to make it 53-47 with 11:14 remaining.

Williams, who averaged just 14 minutes and played three in the first game with WVU, played 20 and made all four field goals. He scored nine points and had seven rebounds to become the unanticipated X-factor for the Longhorns.

West Virginia rallied back on three 3-pointers in less than 2 ½ minutes. Beilein, Pittsnogle and Gansey all hit treys, the last of which provided the tie. The teams played within one possession from there on out until Abrams' two free throws put Texas up 70-65 with 26.9 seconds left.

WVU had erased leads like that before, and did it again on another Gansey 3-pointer, this one from well beyond the arc. It swished through with 14.7 seconds left and lead into Aldridge's free throws and Pittsnogle's trying 3-pointer.

West Virginia was forced to play catch-up in the last 20 minutes because it never found that flow versus Texas' superior athletic ability in the first half. It hit just eight first half field goals one game after it made just four in the second half against Northwestern State.

Texas closed with 13 of the final 18 first-half points to further extend its lead. Aldridge scored 16 points, making all eight shots. Not all came from inside, as the sophomore showed his range, continually hitting jumpers over Pittsnogle, who was expected to be the dominant outside player.

UT rallied from down 9-6 to a 23-15 lead with 6:07 left in the half. The 17-6 run, in which Aldridge scored eight points – including six of the last eight – forced a WVU timeout. Frank Young then hit a 3-pointer, but was answered by Daniel Gibson. The Longhorns outscored West Virginia 13-9 over the final 4:49 for a 39-27 halftime lead.

There was no questioning the Mountaineers' effort, just their willingness to match Texas physicality. Simply put, it looked like WVU was afraid to drive inside, and that slowly eliminated the outside looks to create the halftime deficit, which, in the end, could never be overcome.

So, on a night when so many great individual stories were closed – that of Duke's J.J. Redick and Gonzaga's Adam Morrison – West Virginia's was, perhaps, not just the greatest team tale, but the finest epic as well.

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