A loss, which would have given WVU three in a row, could have created a major psychological hurdle with games against Florida, Iowa State, Baylor and Kansas over the next five. But when the Mountaineers turned a 74-70 deficit into the 80-76 win, they also seemingly turned the page on a pair of poor performances that threatened to mentally derail the team.
Of course, West Virginia was in that position in the first place because they mentally derailed themselves. The lack of focus and effort in the loss to Texas was surprising to everybody but the WVU coaching staff, which had warned players in practice that bad habits were developing. The Longhorn loss served as a proverbial smack upside the head that seemed to right the approach. Head coach Bob Huggins said the practices leading to Texas Tech were "really good," meaning the Mountaineers again found their proper preparation.
Frankly, it showed at times as West Virginia staved off an active, high-energy Red Raider team that had already topped Texas, TCU and Minnesota, among others. The Mountaineers scored 10 of the game's final 12 points, eight of those coming in a closing flurry from Tarik Phillip. The guard, perhaps WVU's best competitor, finished with a three-pointer, a traditional three-point play and then the run out dunk that iced the victory and pushed him to a new career-high in points with 20.
The win wasn't without warts, though. West Virginia lacked in its man-to-man defense, and eventually abandoned it in favor of a zone. The Mountaineers also weren't as effective on the boards as one would like. There were multiple issues in blocking out, both with positioning and in finding an opposing offensive player and taking a body out of the play, as opposed to simply occupying a space. WVU also gave up a 10-point first-half lead via a series of turnovers, and once again forced just one more turnover (18) than they themselves committed (17) in a category that needs a far bigger differential.
"Lot of ebb and flow, as they say," Huggins said. "We got up 10 in the first half and all the sudden you look up and its a one-point game. We continue to turn it over and shoot ourselves in the foot. When we were up 10, we turned it over three times. And we turn it over without people really pressing us."
That helped Texas Tech seemingly gain control of the contest, which the Raiders' appeared to have all but sealed until the final 75 seconds. Having missed four of their five threes in the second half, West Virginia got a huge one from Phillip to pull within one at 76-75 with 54 seconds left. With Devin Williams having fouled out, Phillip was able to strip Aaron Ross under the bucket on the ensuing possession and convert the resulting run out into the three-point play and a 78-76 advantage.
Down two, Tech took a timeout, then took a deep three with 11 seconds to play that kicked off to the left side. In a scramble, Justin Gray saved the ball from going out of bounds, throwing it into the Raiders' backcourt. Daxter Miles dove at the ball, knocking it away from Keenen Evans before feeding a cutting Phillip. The dunk flushed the panache from the 10,732 in attendance, and did the same to any remaining residue from the recent losses.
"They're all good," Huggins said of the win. "Some are better than others."
And that's really the dynamic at play here. Upon a review at season's end, this win will be seen as more pedestrian than prominent. West Virginia, after all, went on the road and did what it was supposed to do in beating an inferior team. This victory won't be remembered as all that special.
But it should be, both because of the way in which West Virginia rallied to win, and the issues that plagued the team against Texas. It all threatened to snowball and become a giant mess if the slide didn't cease here. Instead, because of some intestinal - and mental - fortitude, the Mountaineers are back on track, and will also likely hold on to a national ranking, albeit not in the top 10. And if they ever get there again, one might point to this as the game where West Virginia showed it had learned how to handle success - and retain the desire to strive for more.