COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Count the West Virginia Mountaineers out. They prefer it that way.
Aware of the speculation that West Virginia might be an upset victim in the second round and hearing a few doubts again heading into the third, the Mountaineers turned those perceived slights into rocket fuel for their full-court press and a pair of victories to open the NCAA tournament.
The No. 5 seed Mountaineers put on a defensive clinic at Nationwide Arena, forcing a flood of turnovers, turning mistakes into points and stamping themselves as an opponent that is going to make life miserable for its opponents. Against Buffalo in a 68-62 victory on Friday and then the Maryland Terrapins in a 69-59 street fight on Sunday night, that relentless system also came with the benefit of a victory.
“It’s hard work,” coach Bob Huggins said. “It’s hard, and it comes down to having a lot of heart.”
West Virginia showed plenty of it to claim a couple hard-fought wins, and now it gets the reward of a date with the No. 1 Kentucky Wildcats in the Sweet 16.
Star of the first weekend: The Mountaineers had their leading scorer back in the lineup after a four-game absence, but with Juwan Staten still not quite looking fully like himself, Devin Williams stepped up to fill the void with invaluable offensive performances in both victories. The sophomore forward followed up a wildly efficient outing in the second round that included only one missed field goal on the way to a team-high 17 points with some rim-rattling dunks and 16 more points to lead the way past Maryland. Williams was an important cog in the West Virginia attack all season, averaging nearly 12 points per game, but he was able to give the Mountaineers even more at the most important time of year. Perhaps even more importantly for the Mountaineers, Williams was a force on the boards, topping his nine-rebound performance against the Buffalo Bulls with 10 on Sunday against the Terrapins. It was the the 17th double-double of the sophomore's career.
The big moment in Columbus: Just as it was designed to do, the full-court pressure eventually wore down Maryland. The turnovers started piling up and the transition buckets allowed West Virginia to pull away and advance. After generating a pair of five-second violations after halftime, it was clear the Mountaineers were getting the desired impact out of their relentless defense, but it was a steal about a minute after the second failed inbounds pass that signaled the end was near for the Terrapins. Tarik Phillip nabbed a deflected pass and eventually found Daxter Miles for an emphatic two-handed dunk that pushed the West Virginia lead to nine points and had a pro-West Virginia crowd on its feet starting to celebrate the third-round victory well before the final buzzer.
What’s next: The Mountaineers can get comfortable in the state of Ohio, but there’s a big challenge waiting for them up the road in Cleveland. Top-ranked and undefeated Kentucky has won both of its tournament games so far by double-digit margins, and it certainly won’t be intimidated by West Virginia’s full-court pressure thanks to its talent, athleticism and a deep bench. But with his winning record against John Calipari, Bob Huggins and his team won’t be backing down, either. The Mountaineers have proven more than capable of competing with some of the best teams in the country during the regular season, and now they will get a chance to measure themselves against the undisputed favorite to win the national title.