The fourth-seeded West Virginia Mountaineers advanced to the second round of the 2017 NCAA tournament Thursday, as they defeated the 13th-seeded Bucknell Bison 86-80 at the KeyBank Center in Buffalo, New York.
WVU was shocked by No. 14 Stephen F. Austin in last year's opening round, but it avoided a similar fate Thursday largely because of its press defense, which forced 15 Bucknell turnovers.
One of the biggest differences in the game was bench scoring, as West Virginia's reserves combined did a number on the Bison, according to ESPN Stats & Info:
ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo
West Virginia pulls away from Bucknell. Mountaineers had 20-6 advantage in second-chance points, 37-5 advantage in bench points.2017-3-16 21:13:06
Five Mountaineers reached double digits in scoring, including senior guard Tarik Phillip, who led the way with 16.
Bucknell sophomore guard Kimbal Mackenzie led all scorers with 23 points, while Patriot League Player of the Year Nana Foulland contributed 18 points before getting into foul trouble down the stretch.
Despite the loss, Dustin McComas of OrangeBloods.com felt as though Bucknell showed it belongs on the court with one of the nation's best teams:
Dustin McComas @DMcComasOB
Bucknell gave WVU a heck of a game. That was a scrappy team that matched aggressiveness. Now we get No. 1 turnover D vs No. 1 turnover O.2017-3-16 21:13:10
While Bucknell had some early success against the press and had the game tied nearly five minutes in, WVU's aggressiveness eventually turned the tide.
According to Bucknell MBasketball, the Mountaineers broke open a 13-point advantage:
Bucknell MBasketball @Bucknell_MBB
WVU on a 15-2 run in a little over 2 minutes to go up 25-12. They're hurting us on baseline OB plays, with 3 of their buckets in this run.2017-3-16 19:13:30
NBA.com's David Aldridge marveled at West Virginia's defensive relentlessness:
David Aldridge @daldridgetnt
That West Virginia press is a beast...2017-3-16 19:12:43
Bucknell couldn't do much right at that point, as evidenced by this wayward pass by guard Avi Toomer off forward Elijah Macon's face:
Bleacher Report @BleacherReport
March comes at you fast 😬 https://t.co/UW7HfKTcHj2017-3-16 19:27:08
WVU stretched that lead to 15, but Bucknell seemingly started to become more comfortable with the press and managed to get itself into contention.
The Bison shrunk West Virginia's lead all the way down to three with just over four minutes remaining in the half by virtue of a strong scoring run of their own, per Chris Jackson of the Daily Athenaeum:
Chris Jackson @CJacksonWVU
Huggins will need to wake his team up again here. Bucknell is on a 21-9 run and only trails by 3. #WVU once led by 152017-3-16 19:41:01
West Virginia got things going again on both ends of the floor, though, and entered halftime with a 42-33 advantage, as Bucknell failed to score in the final four minutes of the half.
Despite the poor close to the first half, Bucknell continued to battle and kept things interesting for much of the second half.
As seen in the following video from CBS Sports, Foulland was a handful for WVU because of his inside presence:
CBS Sports @CBSSports
Bucknell will NOT go quietly. https://t.co/K08U8LbH8l2017-3-16 20:18:29
For as resilient as the Bison were, the Mountaineers continued to exert nonstop effort defensively, which prevented Bucknell from finding an ideal offensive rhythm.
The following play by forward Nathan Adrian at the five-minute mark was a perfect example, as he hit the deck and set up an easy basket for WVU to get the lead back to nine:
CBS Sports @CBSSports
INCOMING https://t.co/gA6j0Fx9Zb2017-3-16 20:26:36
Bucknell once again closed the deficit to three, but it was never able to secure a tie or seize the lead.
The tenacious play of Adrian played a huge role in that, as he did work on the offensive glass and as a scorer in the paint, as evidenced by this video courtesy of NCAA March Madness:
NCAA March Madness @marchmadness
West Virginia closing in on a win! #MarchMadness https://t.co/PwUONi27GR2017-3-16 21:02:05
Bucknell never again got closer than within five points of West Virginia's lead, and the Mountaineers were able to close things out by hitting their free throws down the stretch.
The Mountaineers' win sets the stage for a second-round clash with No. 5 Notre Dame, which survived a scare against 12th-seeded Princeton earlier in the day.
West Virginia and Notre Dame haven't met since 2011, but the Mountaineers have a major challenge ahead against a team that has reached the Elite Eight in each of the past two seasons.
Provided WVU can defeat the ACC tournament runner-up, it will advance to just its second Sweet 16 since 2011.
Adrian admitted after the game that he thought about last year's upset loss to Stephen F. Austin entering the contest, but he was confident that the team was more ready to play Bucknell, which manifested itself in the victory, according to Amy Mortiz of the Buffalo News: "Personally, it was on my mind a little bit through our practice. We didn't have great practices last year, but this year I thought we prepared a little better. We've got to play a little better defense, but we'll fix it."
WVU head coach Bob Huggins echoed the sentiment of needing to improve, and specifically put the onus on his guards: "We have to get our guards to do a better job. ... We miss enough shots, you know, there's plenty to go around."
Despite the loss, Mackenzie said that he and his teammates believed throughout the game that they could hang with the Mountaineers and had a chance to win:
You know, this year, we've been down a couple times. We've been down big, and we know we're a mentally tough team who is able to fight back. We have a lot of weapons and we didn't panic. We just, you know, tried to win every possession, one possession at a time. And we looked up a couple minutes later and we were back in the game.
While Bucknell is heading home, West Virginia will meet Notre Dame in the second round on Saturday.