AUBURN HILLS, Mich. (AP)—Maybe West Virginia was just saving up for the NCAA tournament.
Kevin Pittsnogle scored 18 points to lead the sixth-seeded Mountaineers to an easy 64-46 victory over 11th-seeded Southern Illinois in the Atlanta Regional on Friday.
West Virginia (21-10) staggered into the tournament having lost five of its last seven games, but looked nothing like the sluggish team that got bounced by Pitt in the first round of the Big East tournament last week.
The Mountaineers made 11 3-pointers in the game and will play 14th-seeded Northwestern State, which shocked No. 3 Iowa, in the second round Sunday. They’re headed to the second round in back-to-back seasons for the first time since Jerry West’s days in 1959-60.
Jamaal Tatum and Matt Shaw each scored 12 points for Southern Illinois (22-11), which looked completely out of place against the experienced Mountaineers.
Just as they last year in getting to the regional finals, the Mountaineers buried the their opponent under a barrage of 3-pointers and backdoor cuts.
They used runs of 14-0 in the first half and 12-0 in the second half to remove any doubt and give some of the naysayers a little ammunition for questioning the Missouri Valley Conference’s four bids to the tournament.
Pittsnogle led the way, of course, creating matchup problems for the smaller Salukis, who didn’t have a starter taller than 6-foot-7.
On Thursday, the 6-11 Pittsnoggle—with about 6-foot-5 inches worth of tattoos and a shooting guard’s range—vowed to use his height advantage down low before venturing out past the 3-point line.
He did the reverse Friday.
West Virginia made seven 3-pointers in the first half, four coming during a 14-0 run midway through the period that set the tone.
Alex Ruoff, J.D. Collins, Frank Young and Pittsnogle all connected during the spurt that helped loosen up Southern Illinois’ aggressive pressure defense.
West Virginia shot 44 percent from the field and had little difficulty with Southern Illinois, which ranked fourth in the nation in scoring defense coming into the game.
Compared to last year, when all four of the Mountaineers’ tourney games were edge-of-your-seat thrillers, including an overtime loss to Louisville that kept them from the Final Four, this one was a snoozer.
Southern Illinois looked helpless for most of the day, unable to keep up with West Virginia’s drive-and-kick offense.
The Salukis were just as inept on offense, shooting 37.5 percent in the second half and going almost six minutes without a point in their biggest loss of the season.
Mike Gansey added 10 points in a gritty effort for West Virginia. The team’s second-leading scorer was struggling with an abdominal strain sustained in the loss to Pitt, but gutted this one out.
His 3-pointer capped a 12-0 run with 5:30 to play that put the Mountaineers up 59-37.
Gansey added one more 3-pointer down the stretch, and he turned and shook his head in bewilderment at the West Virginia faithful as they chanted, “Our House! Our House!”