A somewhat sleepy game suddenly became frantic at the end, as Bobby Hurley-led Buffalo threatened to become the lone team of the tournament to pull a 12-5 upset. Led by senior Juwan Staten, West Virginia kept its poise and withstood the Bulls’ comeback, holding on for a 68-62 win in Columbus.
Staten, who finished with 15 points and seven assists, drove in for a key layup with three minutes left to give West Virginia a three-point lead. A three-pointer from Buffalo’s Xavier Ford then tied it at 62, but Devin Williams hit a pair of free throws, and Staten followed by finding Tarik Phillip for a dagger three to clinch West Virginia’s win.
Phillip serving as the long-range hero was about as unlikely as it gets, even in what has been a crazy tournament thus far—the sophomore guard had attempted just 25 three-pointers this season and made just five. He picked a good time for his sixth.
That Buffalo was even in the game at the end was a testament to the Bulls’ persistence against the Mountaineers and their physical style, epitomized by Williams, who shook off a twisted ankle in the second half to lead all scorers with 17 points.
As is the case almost every time West Virginia plays, Friday’s game was a physical, high-octane affair. Buffalo looked rattled by the West Virginia full-court press early on, struggling to get the ball across the line and then finding difficulty scoring when they did begin to move the ball with more success. Buffalo often attacked the rim and took rushed shots as soon as it cleared half court, playing right into the Mountaineers’ hands, and looked disjointed whenever it tried to run its normal offense.
But the Bulls eventually adjusted (as best they could) and their shots started falling. The Mountaineers used a 7-0 run to retake momentum heading into halftime, but play was much more even after the break. Ford, Shannon Evans and MAC player of the year Justin Moss were the catalysts of a much more composed Buffalo offense, responding every time West Virginia threatened to pull away.
The Mountaineers offense found little resistance from the Buffalo defense—until later in the second half, when West Virginia suddenly wen cold. After starting the game making 7 of 9 shots, WVU hit just one of its next 10 field goal attempts, allowing Buffalo to close within 60-56 with 3:41 to play.
Ford converted an and-one to cut it to 60-59, and after the tying three shortly thereafter, Buffalo looked capable of pulling the upset in a game it never led. But West Virginia didn't surrender.
The Bulls will likely look back in regret at their performance at the free throw line, as they converted just 16 of 25 attempts. West Virginia made 19 of its 27 attempts, a narrow advantage in a game decided by a thin margin.