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.
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, on the Lady Bears' home floor.
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.
Coach Todd Buchanan felt so good about his team's chances that he sat Courtney Taylor, the two-time C-USA player of the year, the final 10:47 of the first half after she picked up her second foul. The Cougars went from leading by three to trailing by 12 during her absence. She played nearly the entire second half, and finished with 17 points, but it wasn't enough.
"It was very frustrating," Taylor said. "It just hurts when you can't go out there and help your team."
Buchanan, in his first year as UH's coach, said it's been his philosophy over 23 years of coaching that a game isn't decided in the first half. He was confident the Cougars could regain the lead with a refreshed Taylor in the second half.
West Virginia prevented that in part because of its height advantage. The Mountaineers outrebounded the Cougars 52-36.
"Their pursuit of the basketball is incredible," Buchanan said. "That's where I felt like their size was to a certain point changed the game, somewhat. We would play defense for 22, 24 seconds, shot goes up, in and out, then there they are. They beat us to the spot. They were a little quicker at times than we were today. That's the real part that hurts, because that's not been us all year. It couldn't have shown up at a worst time and on a bigger stage."
Brittney Scott led Houston with 24 points, including a series of 3s in the final minutes that kept things close.
West Virginia's Asya Bussie scored 11 of her 13 points in the first half. Vanessa House added nine points, including a jumper and a tough layup down the stretch.