Unlikely hero delivers for West Virginia

West Virginia Mountaineers guard Tarik Phillip and guard Gary Browne react after the game against the Buffalo Bulls in the second round of the 2015 NCAA Tournament at Nationwide Arena. 

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Friday’s West Virgina – Buffalo NCAA tournament game wasn’t for the weak, in or out of the paint, and despite playing with the lead almost the whole way, West Virginia couldn’t shake the upset-minded Bulls until the final minute.

That’s when Tarik Phillip delivered the shot of his life. 

March is for surprises. 

Phillip, a sophomore backup from Brooklyn, caught a pass on the left wing from senior point guard Juwan Staten with the shot clock running down and a Buffalo defender closing quickly. His high-arching 3-pointer found the bottom of the net with 28 seconds left to extend West Virginia’s lead to five, and a deflated Buffalo team didn’t score again.

West Virginia dances on with a 68-62 win. 

Afterwards, West Virginia coach Bob Huggins admitted he had placed Phillip in the game for defensive purposes earlier and, caught up in the stress and the moment, forgot to take him out with the Mountaineers nursing a two-point lead in the final minute.

This is Huggins’ 21st NCAA tournament as a head coach.

Phillip will never forget his first as a player. 

"I watched it go in," Phillip said. "(Staten) was penetrating and he found me. They collapsed, he kicked it and I just let it go. It felt good when it left my hand. 

"It was just my time. Biggest shot of my life."

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Before the shot, Phillip was 4-of-24 on 3-pointers this season. He had made two 3-pointers since the first week of February; he scored 11 points in the month of February. 

He averages 3.8 points per game. He’s the hero of this March moment.

"(Tarik) didn’t have time to think about anything," Staten said. "He just made a great shot."

Phillip had 9 points in a game that was played at a fast pace but was far from a thing of beauty. Staten returned from a four-game absence to deliver 15 points and seven assists, including the one that helped the Mountaineers seal it. Buffalo’s Justin Moss had missed a reverse layup with 1:40 left that would have tied the game, and after a Devin Williams offensive rebound and timeout, Phillip’s shot sunk Buffalo. 

"We needed to get a stop and hope that we could get the ball back and have a chance to tie it or go ahead," Buffalo coach Bobby Hurley said. "I mean, we closed out as good as you could close out to a shooter and he made it. Phillip made a great, contested 3-point shot."

It was physical throughout, and though Buffalo never led it rallied to tie the game after trailing by as many as 13. The teams combined for 29 turnovers and a shooting percentage of 45.

But Phillip knew the game’s biggest shot was good as soon as it left his hand. 

"Tarik is that kind of kid," Huggins said. "Loves the moment. Probably the only one who wanted Tarik to shoot that was Tarik, but he had to. It was the end of the clock. He relishes the moment, and we are fortunate to have a couple guys that do."

Asked at the postgame press conference about Phillip being "in and out of your good graces all year," Huggins smiled.

"I’ve loved Tarik the whole time," Huggins said. 

Just never more than he does right now.