W. Virginia's searing half bursts Demons' bubble

West Virginia 67 Northwestern State 54

Atlanta Regional

Ncaa Tournament

March 20, 2006|By REID HANLEY | REID HANLEY,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

Auburn Hills, Mich. -- You got the feeling Northwestern State's improbable NCAA tournament run was going to end when West Virginia's Darris Nichols banked one in from downtown Detroit to end the first half.

The 14th-seeded Demons had used all their miracles Friday in a buzzer-beating victory over Iowa, and the Mountaineers advanced to the Sweet 16 with a 67-54 victory yesterday. Northwestern State (26-8) fell behind 41-19 at the half and couldn't recover.

"That shot just epitomized where we were," Northwestern State coach Mike McConathy said. "I don't think we doubted ourselves. They were stunned because they really believed they could get this done."

The sixth seed in the Atlanta Regional, West Virginia made the Sweet 16 for the second straight year, matching the great Jerry West teams, which reached the title game in 1959 and a regional semifinal the next year.

Kevin Pittsnogle led the Mountaineers with 14 points and was one of four players for coach John Beilein to score in double figures. West Virginia had several players, including Mike Gansey (11 points), on the sideline with cramps, bumps and bruises.

"We played just a brilliant first half," Beilein said. "Just like [Friday]. To come back against that quickness and that physical defense ... look at us right now with ice bags all over the place. They did not quit. After Northwestern's historic run [Friday], a lot of people would give in. They wouldn't give in."

Beilein's team shot 53 percent in the first half, including 6-for-14 on three-pointers. The Mountaineers (22-10) also played well on defense, with their 1-3-1 zone forcing Northwestern State into 17 turnovers and 33 percent shooting.

In the second half, Northwestern State, with its 10-man rotation, was forced into fouling to make a comeback. West Virginia made just four field goals in the second half but hit 17 of 23 free throws.

The Demons got within 57-49 with 4:14 left, but that was it. Clifton Lee and Keenan Jones led Northwestern State with 11 points each.

"We were stunned," McConathy said. "We just didn't have enough juice in our tank."

The Mountaineers led by as many as 25 in the second half, but had to hold off a late rally.

"You knew the second half was going to be a root canal," Beilein said. "They went after us with everything they had with their waves, and we got worn down, but we were still standing at the end."

West Virginia will play Texas on Thursday in an Atlanta Regional semifinal. The Longhorns beat West Virginia, 76-75, on Nov. 21 in Kansas City, Mo.

The Southland Conference champion Demons had a chance to become the third 14th-seeded team to reach the round of 16 and first since Chattanooga in 1997. The pride of Natchitoches, La., also could've been the first from their conference to win two NCAA tournament games since 1985.

Reid Hanley writes for the Chicago Tribune. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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