BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) Coach Bob Huggins has spent the past 10 seasons establishing West Virginia’s reputation on playing a stifling press defense.
The Mountaineers performance on Thursday left Huggins relatively unimpressed despite opening the NCAA Tournament with an 86-80 win over Bucknell on Thursday.
”Well, we weren’t very good today,” Huggins said.
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It wasn’t easy for the 63-year-old coach to stomach watching West Virginia pull ahead by double digits in each half only to allow the Bison to mount a comeback .
Nathan Adrian scored 12 points and had 10 rebounds, while Tarik Phillip scored 16 points, including hitting all four free throws in the final minute to secure the victory.
Even Huggins’ players acknowledged they can play better.
”We’ve got to get our heads right and play defense like we know how to,” Adrian said. ”We’ve got to play a little better defense, but we’ll fix it.”
At least, West Virginia (27-9) avoided a repeat of last year’s first-round meltdown when the third-seeded Mountaineers lost to Stephen F. Austin .
The win sets up a meeting against the region’s fifth-seeded Notre Dame Fighting Irish, who hung on for a 60-58 win over Princeton.
Kimbal Mackenzie made 5 of 7 3-point attempts and led the Patriot League-champion Bison with 23 points. Bucknell (26-9) entered the tournament having won six straight and 14 of 16.
Credit Bucknell for not collapsing.
Trailing 27-12 in the first half, the Bison closed West Virginia’s deficit to 36-33 on Avi Toomer’s layup.
Then after Elijah Macon completed a three-point play to put the Mountaineers up 45-33 in the opening seconds of the second half, Bucknell eventually closed the margin to 63-60 on Mackenzie’s contested 3-point basket from the left corner with 8:58 left.
”We’ve been down a couple of times. We’ve been down big. And we know we’re a mentally tough team that was able to fight back,” Mackenzie said. ”We had a lot of weapons and we didn’t panic.”
Bucknell won twice this season when trailing by 11 or more points.
The Mountaineers’ superior size proved a difference by out-rebounding Bucknell 42-32 and a 20-6 edge in second-chance points.
What was troubling is how the Mountaineers forced only 15 turnovers, well below the nation-leading 20.4 they were averaging entering the game.
At least West Virginia’s offense played to its high-scoring potential.
The Mountaineers scored 85 or more points for the 17th time this season. And with 2,873 points, they’re now 12 away from breaking the school’s single-season record set by the Jerry West-led team in 1958-59.
It didn’t help that Bucknell’s top player, Nana Foulland, missed a five-minute stretch of the second half after picking up his fourth foul with 9:37 left.
The Patriot’s league’s MVP and defensive player of the year finished with 18 points and seven rebounds in just 30 minutes.
HEADS UP PLAY
The Mountaineers press defense was at its best five minutes into the second half when Adrian dived to the paint to steal an inbounds pass and then fed Lamont West for a dunk.
”When he makes a play like that that that other people think is a great play, we see him do it every day,” Huggins said of Adrian’s steal. ”So I don’t think anybody thought it was anything out of the ordinary.”
On the ensuing inbounds pass, Bucknell’s Toomer was whistled for an offensive foul against Adrian, who unfortunately missed both free-throw attempts.
Huggins took his familiar spot on a personal stool between his bench and the scorer’s table. A day earlier, Huggins spoke about enjoying his previous trips to Buffalo , where he’s now 4-0 as West Virginia coach – including 3-0 in tournament games. Huggins liked the city so much, he even returned to enjoy a successful fishing trip on Lake Erie.
FLASHING THE TREY
Mackenzie was so sure his open 3-pointer from the right corner was going in, he twirled and faced away from the basket, winked and flashed three fingers at Bison fans in the nearby stands. Sure enough, the shot swished through the net, cutting West Virginia’s lead to 58-55 with 12:18 remaining.
West Virginia: Plays fifth-seeded Notre Dame on Saturday.
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