BUFFALO — This was no free pass. Not for a West Virginia team that lost in the first round to Stephen F. Austin last year, not for the Mountaineers who blew a 14-point lead in the final 2:43 to Kansas last month.
A five-point lead against Bucknell with a minute left was enough to make West Virginia fans nervous in a first-round game Thursday. It was fortunate for their team that the man who went to the free-throw line six times in that final minute was not nervous in the least. Tarik Phillip made all six and the Mountaineers comfortably advanced to Saturday’s second round, 86-80.
“I don’t mind being there at all,” the senior from Brooklyn said.
That was not the easiest thing to say, considering free throws were the particular weak spot in the loss at Kansas — a turnaround so stunning that Jayhawks coach Bill Self called it the most remarkable win of his career. Phillip took it upon himself to work on his foul shooting since then, and it showed when it was needed most Thursday. He scored a team-high 16 points, including 7-for-7 at the line.
“Tarik went from being a poor free-throw shooter. He’s really put a lot of time in,” coach Bob Huggins said. “He has actually listened when we talked to him about how he could improve his shot.”
Shooting allowed Patriot League champion Bucknell (26-9) to stay close. Kimbal Mackenzie, a sophomore from Ontario, Canada, made five of seven three-pointers and had 23 points. Center Nana Foulland scored 18 from closer range.
West Virginia (27-8) was steadied by Phillip, in his third season of NCAA Tournament play. “It definitely helps. You’re more calm,” Phillip said. “You’re just focusing on the game more than the whole NCAA atmosphere type of thing. You know what I’m saying?
“We just wanted to show we’re not a fluke team. Last year everybody thought we were a fluke team and we lost in the first round to a team we should have beat. So we just wanted to come out and make some sort of statement.”