AUBURN HILLS, Mich. - This is why West Virginia is so dangerous come tournament time.
“We ran into something we’ve never seen before,” Southern Illinois forward Randal Falker said. “It was all confusing. I’ve never seen a team that can all hit the 3s. We just couldn’t match up with them.”
Kevin Pittsnogle scored 18 points and the sixth-seeded Mountaineers made 11 3-pointers in 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.
“We’ve been down since Pitt,” Pittsnogle said. “Our energy is always great at this time of the year, and especially this year. You have to be ready to play when it could be your last game.”
The Mountaineers 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, despite playing in their fifth straight tournament.
“We ran into a buzz saw,” coach Chris Lowery said. “Their experience outreaches our tradition.”
Five of West Virginia’s top six players are seniors, meaning they were around for last year’s surprising run to the regional finals. The Mountaineers followed the same script in the opener this year, burying 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.
The mid-major conference is 1-2 with 13th-seeded Bradley waiting to play fourth-seeded Kansas in the night cap.
“We haven’t played a team like that where all five guys can hit the 3,” Southern Illinois guard Tony Young said. “It was a crazy game.”
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.
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 a defense that ranked fourth in the nation.
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.
It was also a deviation from this tournament, in which close games have been the plentiful.
“When we were up 20 with 2 to go, I said to myself ’Even I can’t blow this one,”’ coach John Beilein said. “It was nice to not have those gut-wrenching final seconds.”
Southern Illinois was unable to keep up with West Virginia’s drive-and-kick offense and the Salukis were just as lost on offense, shooting 37.5 percent in the second half and going almost six minutes without a point in their most lopsided 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 with 5:30 to play 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!”
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