As the three officials went to the monitor for the replay, no time was left on the clock, and the Sprint Center scoreboard still read West Virginia 69, Oklahoma 67. But the Sooners’ Buddy Hield had just thrown in a miracle shot from halfcourt. The only question was whether the ball was still on his fingertips when the clock reached 0:00.0. A berth in the Big 12 championship game against Kansas Saturday night rested on the outcome of the replay decision.
Hield, undoubted the national player of the year, had been smothered and harassed by WVU’s defense all night, and had been limited to just six points and a single made field goal through the game’s 39:59.9 … or was it through 40:00.0. The senior guard streaked into the stands to celebrate after his shot tickled the net, and West Virginia’s players lay prone on the floor in disbelief. But wait, three men in striped shirts huddled around the scorer’s table, trying to determine if Hield got the ball off before the buzzer sounded. After a minute that seemed like 15, official John Higgins stood up and waved the shot off … cue the Mountaineers’ merriment and the Sooners’ despair.
"We just tried to make it a team effort and tried to limit his attempts and switch people on and off him, tried to wear him down,"WVU guard Jaysean Paige said. "We felt like we did a good job doing it."
It was a dramatic ending to a game filled with drama.
The first half was all about the three-pointer. West Virginia connected on six shots from beyond the arc – four of them from Jevon Carter – while Oklahoma knocked in five of them – three from Jordan Woodard. Even though WVU was hitting from deep, and also was the recipient of 11 Sooner turnovers, the Mountaineers’ inconsistency in the paint allowed OU to slash West Virginia’s early eight-point lead. A 12-3 Oklahoma run late in the period gave Oklahoma a short-lived, 30-29 lead, before a tip-in by Devin Williams put WVU on top 30-29 at halftime.
The second half was nearly a carbon copy of the first. The Mountaineers’ pressure defense not only continued to keep the ball out of Hield’s hands but forced another nine OU turnovers. WVU took advantage and pushed its lead up to six … and then eight … and then with 7:06 remaining to 12, 59-47 after Tarik Phillip banked in a three from the left wing.
But the Sooners haven’t been in the top 10 for most of the year because they roll over at the first sign of trouble. Led by freshman Christian James, who played just one minute in Oklahoma’s 14-point win over West Virginia in Morgantown a few weeks ago, OU went on a 20-5 run that carried it to a 67-64 lead with just 1:47 left. James scored all of his 13 points in a five-minute span to give his club the lead.
But WVU wasn’t done either. It benefited when Oklahoma’s Ryan Spangler, who had been 4-of-4 from the foul line, missed a pair of big free throws with 1:05 remaining, leaving the OU lead at three. Jaysean Paige drew West Virginia to within one by converting a pair of foul shots with just under a minute to go, and 45 seconds later, with WVU still down 67-66, Paige again hit a shot from the foul line, but this time it was a step-back field goal to put the Mountaineers in front with 11.2 seconds showing.
"One of the keys of the game tonight was just rebounding the ball, limiting them in the second-chance shots," Paige said. "And towards the end of the game we kind of got away from that. They got a few rebounds and a few easy looks. We just had to, you know, finish up on that and finish blocking out and finish plays off."
The Sooners got the ensuing inbounds pass to their hot hand, and James drove the lane for what could have been a go-ahead layup with five seconds left. But the freshman’s scoop hit the front rim and bounced away. The precious rebound was corralled by West Virginia’s Jonathan Holton, who was fouled with 1.8 seconds remaining. Though he missed the first free throw attempt, the Mountaineer senior hit the second, setting up the gutting-churning change of emotions that would follow.
Carter wound up as WVU’s leading scorer with a season-high 26 points, including a 6-of-9 performance from three-point range. West Virginia, which was 10-of-23 from beyond the arc as a team, also got 10 points from Paige. Isaiah Cousins led the Sooners (25-7) in scoring with 15 points, as OU nailed 11-of-21 three-pointers as a team.
"I feel like the same looks I got tonight is the same looks I had the other games," Carter said. "Just tonight the shots just went in."
West Virginia (26-7) now moves on to the Big 12 championship game where it will face Kansas (29-4) Saturday night at 6 p.m. on ESPN. The Jayhawks, who are currently ranked No. 1 in the country, split with the Mountaineers during the regular season. WVU claimed a 74-63 win in Morgantown on Jan. 12, while Kansas turned the tables in Lawrence, 75-65, on Feb. 9. The rubber match in Kansas City will be for the Big 12 Tournament crown.
"I'm blessed, I've got a great staff that, you know, they're great basketball guys," Huggins said. "So we sat there together last night and just talked about making just a few changes. And these guys are great. We don't do a lot of things well, but we really do compete. We just kind of challenged them to compete a little bit harder, do a better job guarding the ball.Note: Huggins was also asked about the last shot."It's kind of a blur," he said. "You don't want to turn him loose, but you sure don't want to foul him. And I think that's what our guys are thinking. They're trying to slow him down, but at the same time they are trying not to foul him because he is a 90% free throw shooter. So I guess we take our chances, the heave from half court rather than putting him to the line for two."Huggins, on defending Hield and limiting him to six points:"Everybody has been asking me how do you stop him? I don't know how to stop him. The only thing I know is it's hard to score if you don't have the ball. Those guys, they were honest, all we talked about was let's do everything we can possibly do to not let him get his hands on the ball. And we didn't leave him in pressure. You know, it was more of a four-man press and somebody staying close enough to him."