The Mountaineers, staring down the barrel of a finishing stretch which includes six games against ranked teams over the final seven, nearly shot itself in the foot in squandering a 10-point lead over the final five-plus minutes and trailing by as many as three inside 40 seconds before rallying for the team’s 19th win.
“I don’t know if we could have found any more ways to lose it,” head coach Bob Huggins said. “It was frustrating. But a golfer once told me, you don’t draw pictures of how you played (on the card). You write down a score.”
And while Huggins might need a drink after No. 19, known on the course as a watering hole and the court as a must-win for this Mountaineer team, there’s no question the result, at least, deserves a cheers. Ahead 67-57 with 5:28 left, WVU missed free throws, lay-ups, air-balled a three-pointer, fouled 80-plus feet from the basket, turned the ball over underneath the KSU hoop on an inbounds play and still found the fortitude to get a key inside bucket from Devin Williams to break a 69-69 tie and follow with clutch free throw shooting by Jevon Carter and Gary Browne to hold on for the victory – giving WVU a season sweep of the Wildcats (12-13, 5-7), who have now lost five in a row.
The avalanche of miscues started simply enough, West Virginia nursing a 67-60 with 3:49 to play despite missing 12 of its last 14 shots to that point. There was no killer instinct, no drive to go after the win. Instead, with KSU in a 2-3 zone, the Mountaineers missed a lay-in, allowed a score at the other end, then threw the ball away for their 13th turnover. That was compounded by Nate Adrian’s foul 80 feet from the bucket, which led to a pair of Nigel Johnson free throws to narrow the margin to 67-64.
Then, inexplicably, Carter’s inbounds pass off the Johnson free throw hit Dax Miles in the back, which allowed Johnson to corral the loose ball and score to pull within 67-66 with three minutes left. The mishap continued when Staten missed a pair of free throws on the next series, and Nino Williams scored a traditional three-point play against Adrian for a 69-67 K-State lead— their first since the 16:38 mark of the first half – off the 11-0 push. Adrian managed to tie it at 69-69 on two free throws on the next possession before Nino Williams was then called for a travel to set-up Devin Williams’ shot in the lane for a 71-69 lead. The Mountaineers hit five of eight free throws inside 40 seconds for the win.
“We were awful,” said Huggins, whose team missed 15 of 17 shots at one point in the second half. “We didn’t do a good job defensively. Do you know who efficient we really could be when we make lay-ups and dunks? People missed lay-ups and dunks. … We had pretty bad shot selection. Our spacing was horrible.”
It was the very definition of an ugly win. But it goes in the left hand column, and brings the Mountaineers (19-5, 7-4) into a third place tie with No. 14 Iowa State, which plays host to WVU on Saturday. Kansas State, which dropped two games to West Virginia during its five game skid, is now eighth, just ahead of Texas Tech and TCU.
“On defense, we didn’t break down mentally,” said KSU head coach Bruce Weber, who called WVU’s play “bad basketball” after the first series meeting. “We were definitely better prepared and our kids understood how they played. Our kids attacked their press well. The difference in the game was a few breakdowns down the stretch.”
And West Virginia’s inability to hit shots. After building a 46-35 halftime lead, West Virginia allowed K-State to cut into it to 46-40 in the first 2:30 of the second half. It was a microcosm of a stretch over the first 15 minutes of the latter period when WVU cooled from 62.1 percent shooting in the first half to just 30 in the second. Williams’ lay-in for the lead was the only field goal for the Mountaineers in the final five-plus minutes. He finished with just five points, with frontcourt counterpart Brandon Watkins scoring a career-high 14 with nine rebounds, eclipsing his previous high of 11 points set against Marshall last season. He entered averaging 1.8 points per game, with a season-high of six, but did not play over the final minutes. Watkins left the bench area and headed off the floor. Huggins was unaware of his status as of his post game press conference, saying only that Watkins "might be hurt, I don't know."
Three other WVU players also reached double figures, as Staten hit for 11 with Jaysean Paige and Jevon Carter adding 10 apiece. Nino Williams had 22 for Kansas State. Johnson and Justin Edwards scored 14 each. West Virginia’s bench had a 47-19 scoring advantage. There were five ties and seven lead changes.
“He’s been playing better and better in practice,” Huggins said of Watkins. “I think he got tired of sitting on the bench and did something about it. He’s been active in practice.”
West Virginia closed with an 11-4 push over the final three minutes to lead 46-35 at halftime. The Mountaineers likely could have been up more, but again missed numerous point blank shots despite their red hot 62.1 percent shooting from the field, including 57.1 percent (5-of-7) from three-point range. WVU led 35-31 with three minutes left before forcing Kansas State into a pair of turnovers and a missed lay-up during an 8-0 run that provided some spacing between the teams headed to the break. The Mountaineers scored on two dunks and a pair of run out lay-ups that had the Coliseum as loud as it has been for any weeknight game this season.
Arguably WVU’s most impressive individual play of the year came during the stretch, when Paige hit an alley-oop dunk off a long pass from Staten, stationed near the perimeter. The 6-2 guard elevated and easily grabbed the ball several feet above the rim before flushing it through to jump start the run. KSU led for just 1:19 during the first half of the contest in losing their fifth consecutive game, two of which were against the Mountaineers. WVU finishes the season facing six ranked teams in its final seven games, the lone unranked team a difficult match-up in Texas.