BUFFALO, N.Y. — Every time Bucknell began feeling the upset vibe, West Virginia simply had too much in reserve.
Lamont West erupted out of a shooting slump, Tarik Phillip played clutch minutes late and the Mountaineers’ bench delivered a 32-point scoring edge in their 86-80 NCAA first-round win Thursday.
“Our bench comes in and executes, and I’m just a part of it,” West said.
West Virginia (27-8), the No. 4 seed, avoided a repeat of last season’s 3-14 upset loss to Stephen F. Austin, though tension arose in the second half when Bucknell made 8-of-13 from 3 and erased much of a 15-point deficit.
“Seemed like every time we started to get away from them a little bit, they made a 3,” Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins said.
West’s 15 points surpassed his output from the previous six games, and Phillip scored 10 of his 16 during the final 6:22. Ultimately they fueled a mammoth 37-5 scoring edge over Bucknell’s backups.
“Everybody stepped up to the table,” Phillip said.
The game wasn’t sealed until West Virginia — among the bottom third of Division I teams in free-throw accuracy — made 9-of-10 in the final minute, including six straight from Phillip.
Esa Ahmad had 15 points and six boards, while Nathan Adrian’s 12-point, 10-rebound effort led the favorites to a 42-32 margin on the glass, including 17-9 on the offensive end.
“Esa’s getting back to being Esa, and when you got a 6-7, 6-8 guy playing against 6-2, 6-3 guys, you ought to have an advantage,” Huggins said. “I thought he was good, Nate’s always good. Elijah (Macon) has just gotten better and better. I thought those three guys were pretty good. We miss enough shots, you know, there’s enough to go around.”
Offense wasn’t a worry Thursday — those 86 points were the most for West Virginia in a stretch of 21 NCAA tournament games, dating back to the 111-105 double-OT win against Wake Forest in 2005.
Slowing Bucknell (26-9) became the concern as guard Kimbal Mackenzie, playing 90 minutes from his hometown in Ontario, pumped in 23 points while making 5-of-7 from 3-point range.
Patriot League player of the year Nana Foulland finished with 18 points and seven rebounds, much of that damage early before encountering second-half foul difficulty.
Stephen Brown added 18 and Zach Thomas scored 13 for the Bison, combining for 25 points after halftime. “Press Virginia” had its chaos-inducing moments, yet Bucknell was largely satisfied with committing 15 turnovers in a game of 76 possessions.
“They’re big, long, athletic, but we have speed,” Brown said. “Other guys did a good job of getting open and providing outlets for the guys in the back court. Despite their length and stuff, we just looked for the right reads and just kept attacking it.”
Not even a 27-12 hole after 8 minutes discouraged Bucknell.
Instead Mackenzie’s jumpers and Foulland’s low-post baskets produced 17 of the Bison’s next 21 points. Soon they were within 36-33.
“Especially an NCAA game, with the length of the time-outs, the intensity and all of that, it’s a long game,” said Bucknell coach Nathan Davis. “And 15 points looks like a lot, but it’s really five or six possessions.
“It was early. There was still over 10 minutes left in the first half, 30 minutes left to be played. We had a lot of time left to make it up and give our guys credit for having the mental toughness to do that.”
After the Mountaineers rebuilt the lead to 12 early in the second half, MacKenzie led another charge, including a corner 3 that cut the deficit to 58-55.
West Virginia point guard Jevon Carter had 11 points yet fell to 8-of-37 shooting in five NCAA tournament games. Though he finished 2-of-9 from the floor, Carter didn’t hesitate to sink a baseline 3 that provided 76-68 breathing room with 3:44 to play.
“I’ve had worse games than that, man,” Carter said. “That ain’t going to stop me.”
Next up comes Saturday’s second-round matchup against Notre Dame, who the Mountaineers haven’t faced since February 2012, their final days in the Big East.