After dropping the previous two meetings against the Gonzaga Bulldogs in an embarrassing fashion, the West Virginia Mountaineers arrived at the WVU Coliseum Tuesday night ready to play against the 16-ranked foe.
Despite leading throughout much of the contest, late defensive breakdowns and hot shooting from Gonzaga guards allowed the Bulldogs to overcome a 10-point second half deficit, defeating the Mountaineers 80-76.
Early on, it appeared that Gonzaga would continue its recent string of dominance over the Mountaineers. A quick spurt from Bulldog's stars Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell, Jr. put West Virginia in fallback position early, as Gonzaga appeared to hold the hot hand on offense.
But the three pointers would quickly start falling for the Mountaineers. A pair of trifectas from Eron Harris and Remi Dibo broke the early three-point drought for West Virginia, as the Mountaineers went a mere 2-6 from behind the arc in the game's first four minutes.
Gonzaga's Bell, however, would answer both early Mountaineers threes, helping the Bulldogs carry a 12-10 advantage into the first media timeout.
Six minutes into the contest, a trip to the foul line for Harris would give the Mountaineers their first lead of the night. The sophomore guard would sink a pair from the charity stripe to put West Virginia up 13-12 against the top-20 foe.
For the next four minutes, both squads would swap the lead like clockwork. A pair of layups from Harris and Gonzaga's Gerard Coleman kept the Mountaineers in the lead by one with 12 minutes down in the contest.
A circus three pointer off the back iron for Pangos put the Bulldogs back in favorable position and sparked a mini run for the visiting squad. The straightaway shot would clank off the rim, bouncing straight into the air before falling through the net. The unlikely shot put the Bulldogs back ahead 17-15.
Two possessions later, Harris would continue his impressive early showing by answering Pangos' three. The basket, coupled with a long jumper by Gary Browne, put the Mountaineers up 20-19 at the second media break.
West Virginia would continue to live by the three for stretches late in the first half, connecting on a few to rile up a strong crowd at the WVU Coliseum. Exiting the third media timeout, freshman forward Nathan Adrian, who came off the bench Tuesday for the first time this season, connected with his first three of the contest to give the Mountaineers a 27-22 advantage.
But on the ensuing two possessions for the Mountaineers, the quick three point attempts would not fall. A paint attack from Gonzaga, with Coleman and Pangos initiating, killed West Virginia's quick momentum, putting the Bulldogs back on top 28-27 with five minutes remaining in the half.
Both teams would continue to swap lead for the remainder of the half, with random spurts igniting a powder keg of excitement from the rowdy Coliseum crowd. A big block from Terry Henderson on 7-foot Gonzaga center Przemek Karnowski, followed up by consecutive Harris threes brought the Coliseum into a frenzy, giving West Virginia a 37-33 lead.
Juwan Staten would add on a buzzer-beating layup as the clock expired to give the Mountaineers a 39-35 halftime lead.
After a slew of halftime entertainment featuring the WVU Drumline and "crowd participation," both teams return to the court looking to continue this back and forth contest.
Exiting the locker room, Henderson proved to maintain some offensive fire from the previous half. Making his first start of the season, Henderson only contributed two points to the first half total.
But once the second half got underway, the sophomore guard lit a fire under the Coliseum crowd. A quick layup to open the half was quickly followed up on the ensuing possession by a loud and forceful slam, bringing the crowd to their feet. The dunk gave the Mountaineers an eight-point lead, the largest of the game at that point for either team.
From here, the Mountaineers would continue to pour it on the Bulldogs on both ends of the court. A pair of layups from Staten and Williams, coupled with a wide-open miss from David Stockton on a drive, pushed West Virginia's lead to 10 - 51-41 - forcing Gonzaga to call a timeout.
The timeout proved to be effective for the Bulldogs, as West Virginia struggled to regain the momentum shortly after the quick pause in play. A pair of unsuccessful possessions for the Mountaineers allowed Gonzaga to cut back into the lead at 51-45, as both teams broke for the first media timeout of the half.
Gonzaga would continue this run into the ensuing four-minute period, going on a 12-4 since going down by 10. Even with the run, West Virginia held onto a 55-51 advantage heading into the under 12:00 break.
The Bulldogs would continue to take the crowd out of the contest with efficient offensive play, until Henderson continued his second half streak. With Gonzaga cutting the deficit to four, the sophomore guard was fouled during a big three-point attempt. The shot would fall, as would the ensuing free throw, to put West Virginia back up by eight - 64-56 - with eight minutes remaining.
But the positive mojo would be short-lived for the Mountaineers, as Kyle Dranginis connected with a corner three of his own on the ensuing possession, cutting the lead back down to five.
Officiating kept the Bulldogs within arm's reach of the lead throughout much of the following three minutes. A number of controversial calls favored Gonzaga, allowing them to go on a 12-2 run to take the lead - 68-66 - with just under four minutes remaining, thanks to a Pangos corner three.
Following the final media timeout, it became all Pangos. The All-American contender helped continue the Bulldog's not 18-2 run with two quick threes out of the gate, forcing Coach Huggins to call a timeout with two minutes remaining, down 74-66.
Despite the deficit, the Mountaineers would not back down. A big three pointer by Harris cut the lead to four - 76-72 - with a minute and a half remaining. This was followed up two possessions later by a driving layup from Staten, sending the remaining crowd in the Coliseum into a frenzy.
But the Bulldogs would answer in the end. A second-chance slam dunk by Gonzaga center Sam Dower putting them up again by four where they would hold for the remaining time.
Final: Gonzaga 80, West Virginia 76.
The Mountaineers were led in scoring by Eron Harris with 23, Juwan Staten with 17, and Terry Henderson with 15 points, respectively.
West Virginia will return to action Saturday at the Charleston Civic Center to take on the Marshall Thundering Herd. Tipoff is at 7:30pm.