WASHINGTON — For the second time in three years, the West Virginia Mountaineers, the geographic equivalent of Pluto in the D.C. sports galaxy, are the last local team standing in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.
Once again, the local darlings at Maryland and Virginia disappointed, with the Terps suffering a rare upset in the first round, and the Cavaliers scoring a tournament-low 39 points in a second round throttling by Florida.
And yet Bob Huggins’ squad at West Virginia, lovingly known as “Press Virginia” for their aggressive use of full-court defense, took care of business against Bucknell and Notre Dame, winning by an average margin of seven points.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise, as Huggins is the only coach in the West Region with Final Four experience, and his squad beat Virginia, No. 1 Kansas, and Baylor already this season. He’s also never lost a tournament game in Buffalo, improving his record to 4-0 in the Queen City.
This is the Mountaineers’ third Sweet 16 berth since 2010, and the team is showing confidence on both ends of the court.
“They thought of us as defensive players,” guard Tarik Phillip said. “But the coaching staff instilled a lot of confidence in us, helped us develop our offensive game, and we became pretty good offensive players.”
Unlike Maryland, which squandered its lead vs. Xavier, West Virginia never trailed vs. Notre Dame. After jumping out to a 10-0 lead, the Mountaineers just ground the Irish down.
“Anytime we thought we’d get this thing to four or get it to two possessions, somebody hit a big 3 or they got a putback,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “It’s really spirit-breaking after a while.”
West Virginia’s strength isn’t just attacking weaknesses, but also another team’s strengths. Notre Dame came into this matchup as one of the cleanest teams in the country in terms of turnovers, and left with 14, their worst performance this season.
That is vintage “Press Virginia.”
Next up, West Virginia will play Gonzaga, the top seed in the West Region, on Thursday. Clicking on both sides of the ball, West Virginia has outscored all but three teams in the first two rounds (at the time of publishing), and is one of the most well-rounded teams remaining in the tournament.
Can they beat a Gonzaga team that boasts Przemek Karnowski, a 7-1, 300-pound matchup nightmare? At this point, they are the D.C. area’s last hope at a championship run during March Madness.