WACO, Texas - West Virginia came into its NCAA tournament opener with a big advantage over Houston in key areas such as size and postseason experience.
As it turns out, luck was on the Mountaineers' side, too, as they banked in a pair of key 3-pointers on the way to a 79-73 victory over the Cougars on Sunday.
"We work on that stuff in practice,'' coach Mike Carey said, trying to stifle a smile.
"Not really,'' he added, the smile escaping.
Liz Repella scored 26 points, and Madina Ali added 13 points and 15 rebounds to lift this senior-filled club into the second round for the second straight season and the fourth time in five years (2007, '08 and '10).
Next comes the hard part for West Virginia - trying to win back-to-back games. The Mountaineers (24-9) haven't done that since January. They will play Tuesday night against top-seeded Baylor (32-2).
West Virginia was once ranked No. 6 but imploded since then, winning only half its Big East games and limping into this tournament as a No. 9 seed, stuck in a 3-6 rut. Carey said this game epitomized the up-and-down season because his players didn't stop working hard.
The Mountaineers fell behind early, then took control with a 16-1 run. They led by 12 at halftime thanks to their first banked-in 3, but Carey told them during the break that they could've been up by 20 if they hadn't missed so many layups and other gimmes. They knew it, too.
They stretched the lead to 15 with time winding down, then got tentative and Houston capitalized. The Cougars got within three when Repella answered with the next banked-in 3. There was still 3:26 left, but Houston would never get any closer.
"I was practicing it all day yesterday,'' Repella snickered. "We needed a score there. I was just lucky that it went in. That might've been my first banked-3 ever.''
The eighth-seeded Cougars (26-6) were in the tournament for the first time since 2005, trying to prove their undefeated run through the Conference USA regular season would hold up against a middle-of-the-pack team from the Big East.