MORGANTOWN — There is no greater ally or adversary in the postseason than time, but nothing’s quite as fickle, either.
Ask West Virginia.
It wasn’t long ago — just nine days, in fact — when the Mountaineers were an angry bunch, defeated in the championship game of the Big 12 tournament for a second straight season, wondering if or when what they once had would return and acutely aware time was ticking away.
But seven days later, the same group bought itself more time by defeating Notre Dame with a flair that reminded onlookers of what WVU once was, and the players — actually, the Mountaineers are still an ill-tempered bunch.
“I’m past the part of enjoying things,” guard Tarik Phillip said. “I’m trying to win.”
Whatever bad habits and attitudes gathered before last season’s NCAA tournament and conspired to cost WVU its first-round game against Stephen F. Austin are memories now, and the Mountaineers are on to the Sweet Sixteen and Thursday’s game on TBS at the SAP Center in San Jose, California, against the No. 1 seed in the West region, Gonzaga. Tip-off is scheduled for 7:39 p.m.
“What we did was everything we talked about in practice and on film,” forward Elijah Macon said. “Everything we were supposed to do, we did. We slipped up a couple times, but we made the game hard, and that was the No. 1 plan.”
The entire experience was not without challenges. A winter storm scrapped the original and more convenient travel plan and forced the team to leave campus a day early and bus instead of fly to upstate New York.
Three days later, the Mountaineers beat Bucknell, despite some brief back-and-forth exchanges, and shifted to a taller task to prepare for Notre Dame, a curious counterpart for WVU’s press in that the Fighting Irish committed turnovers less frequently than everyone else in the country.
That distinction wasn’t much of a factor in the game, and even though Notre Dame had only four turnovers in the second half and took 12 more shots than WVU, it was the Mountaineers who played the exceptional offense and made the most momentous baskets to be certain the lead belonged to them from start to finish.
“That’s not an easy thing to do, to stay that consistent throughout the game, and that’s something we struggled with throughout the year,” forward Nate Adrian said. “Doing that was a good sign for us.”
The Mountaineers scored the first 10 points of the day and then pushed back repeated rallies from the Fighting Irish and still outscored them by two points the rest of the way. Yet they went to work before the game ever started.
There was a boisterous breakfast and a lively walk-through, occasions that can be muted by any one of a number of variables and complications the Mountaineers have encountered this season.
“This was 7:50, 8 o’clock in the morning, when everyone’s having breakfast and they’re tired, but waking up and seeing a smile on everybody’s face and feeling like everybody had energy, I knew everybody was prepared to play,” Macon said. “It was good energy throughout the whole team, the whole staff. I felt like it was going to be a good game for us.”
What Macon felt is what others saw — literally saw. Guard Teyvon Myers, who spent his final two years of high school and one season of junior college in California, had a premonition before the Mountaineers advanced to the Sweet Sixteen for the sixth time in 13 seasons.
“I saw myself in Cali,” he said. “I was there with my teammates. I knew this wasn’t going to be the end for us.”
Myers played just two minutes against Notre Dame, and he came out quickly and for good in the first half after he put a turnover in between baskets by his opposite, Fighting Irish point guard Matt Farrell.
“When I was stressing out over there, I kept thinking, ‘You know what, this ain’t the last one,’” Meyers said. “I just knew this wasn’t going to be our last one.”
At least one more awaits WVU’s arrival for its first game in California since winning the 76 Classic in Anaheim in the 2010 season. The Bulldogs (34-1) advanced with a 79-73 win against Northwestern. They led 38-20 at halftime but were outscored 53-41 in the second half and benefited from an officiating error.
The Wildcats, who trailed by 22 in the second half, were down 63-58 with less than five minutes to go when a dunk was blocked by a Gonzaga defender. The defender’s hand, though, was inside the basket, which should have been called goaltending and given Northwestern two points. There was no call, and Northwestern’s coach was instead given a technical foul for debating the oversight.
Gonzaga made the two free throws, and the NCAA admitted to and addressed the mistake, with caused a four-point swing, in a statement after the game.
“We basically just survived and hung in at the end,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Few, who’s 3-0 against WVU with wins at home, at the Coliseum and in the NCAA tournament. “That’s what this tournament is all about. You just need to advance. I’m really happy to get these guys into the Sweet Sixteen. It’s a great week. And obviously we’re hoping and planning for more.”