West Virginia Pushes No. 2 Oklahoma To Brink, Sets Program Up For Special Season

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - After the Kansas game, it read here that West Virginia's performance was impressive. After Oklahoma, it reads it was disappointing.

That statement reads as alarming the first time viewed. Because this was anything but in the realm of disappointing, discouraging or displeasing. The No. 11 - and rising, one assumes - Mountaineers went on the road against the nation's No. 2 - and rising, one assumes - team and lost 70-68. WVU was ahead by as many as seven in the second half, and only the combination of a handful of empty possessions and nine missed free throws cost the team a chance to become the first team in 27 years to defeat the nation's top two teams in consecutive regular season games.

So why the disappointment tagline? Because the end game result initially felt just like that. The Jordan Woodard penetrate-and-miss, the help side defense that had to come from Devin Williams which forced Jonathan Holton to rotate over, then get too far under the rim to rebound. That led to Khadeem Lattin's deciding putback score before Williams' inbounds pass was deflected, the game clock expiring. As patently unfair as it is, it's hard not believe West Virginia won't find a way to win games like this, and isn't that a show of how far the program has come in two seasons?

The Mountaineers, after all, looked dead in the water at the four-plus minute mark, when Oklahoma had turned WVU's seven-point lead into one of its own. The Sooners had stonewalled a series of offensive possessions, then used six straight free throws to build the 65-58 advantage. It looked for all like OU was about to use a sprint down the stretch to put the Mountaineers away and easily secure the No. 1 slot in Monday's polls.

But West Virginia, which held Oklahoma to just one field goal over the final 6:57 until the last tip-in, roared back to tie at 68-68 via the last-gasp 10-3 run spurred by a series of attacks at the basket balanced by Jaysean Paige's huge three-pointer off an excellent set.

So it was entirely reasonable to nearly expect a stop, and the worst-case scenario to be overtime, or, preferably, a win. And that shows just how far this team has emerged in most of the minds of the fanbase. In just a few short weeks, after going on the road and winning three straight, then smacking No. 1 Kansas 74-63 on Tuesday, Bob Huggins' team has morphed from an underdog - maybe even in the minds of its own fans - to a heavy favorite to win the vast majority of the rest of its games.

Based upon this performance, in which West Virginia pushed a second national title contender to the brink, there appears to be exactly one game left on the slate in which it won't be favored. And even that game in Lawrence could be a toss-up. That's not to say WVU will win the rest. The Big 12 is as deep and talented a league as this program has ever played in, and there are sure to be more defeats. But Mountaineer basketball is back in the national consciousness in a big way.

Just one quarter of the way through the game, ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla took to Twitter. "Do right thing, coaches/media & reward No.11 WVU regardless of outcome of this game," he wrote. "Already beat No.1 & has No. OU on ropes. They're legit."

Indeed they are. Sure, there were warts. West Virginia muddied up the game somewhat, and paid the price at times as a solid-shooting Oklahoma team made 27-of-32 free throws while the Mountaineers missed nine-of-22. OU also outrebounded WVU 39-37, including 13-11 on the offensive glass and the last one the biggest. The turnover margin, at 18-16, was only two, far too close for West Virginia's comfort.

But let's examine that. Huggins said before the game the keys were to get more shots - and he surely meant a greater margin than the three at which it ended up - and to force Oklahoma into at least the teens in turnovers while committing no more than 10. Huggins also said offensive rebounding was going to be huge. By all measures, West Virginia failed more than it succeeded in those keys. And yet there were the Mountaineers, leading in the second half, rallying back from behind, then tying the game on the road against No. 2 inside of 30 seconds and holding that tie until the final 2.8 ticks of the clock.

Incredible. What allowed that was the halfcourt defense. Tarik Phillip has insisted it was steadily improving, and that's what carried West Virginia on this day. WVU held Oklahoma to just seven three-pointers on 24 tries for 29.2 percent. That, from a team that ranks second in the NCAA shooting 46.1 percent from outside. In foul trouble most of the game - remarkably no Mountaineer fouled out - the Mountaineers also battled on the inside, getting a combined 17 points and some nifty moves from Elijah Macon and Holton while outscoring OU 36-16 on the interior. 

That offset the off night from Williams, who had just five points and six rebounds. Jevon Carter was cold at 2-for-10 from the field, but Paige picked up the slack with 18 points off the bench, while Phillip added seven. It all combined for a closely-contested a game as West Virginia has played this season. And the difference, as Huggins said afterward, was Oklahoma's offensive rebounding - the Sooners scored 19 second-chance points while allowing WVU just seven - and the discrepancy at the line.

"We shoot 59 percent from the free throw line; that's 100 percent the game," Huggins said. "They made free throws and we didn't. They made shots, we didn't. We have to rebound and score off offensive rebounds because we just can't score consistently enough. We have guys they don't guard at the foul line. It's crazy to be in a league like this and not make jump shots. And the offensive rebounds, they just absolutely killed us."

All true. What also was is that West Virginia is a serious threat in the Big 12. There's much to take and learn and absorb and improve upon from this game. But any sense of true disappointment that didn't slowly transform into a sense of respect for this effort is in error.

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