The first minute of Friday's NIT Tip Off championship game started just the way the Mountaineers wanted. West Virginia jumped out to an early 7-0 lead and it looked as if the Mountaineers had picked up right where they left off after dominating Illinois just 24 hours beforehand. It's safe to say that the next 19 minutes didn't go as planned.
Temple answered the Mountaineers quick start with a 13-0 run of its own that set the tone for a painful first half for the Mountaineers. The first half saw Temple frequently break the Mountaineers' signature pressure defense and hit several open three pointers after it was able to set up in its halfcourt offense. Specifically, junior forward Obi Enechionyia was lights out in the first half as he scored 18 points, going 4-5 from beyond the arc. As a team, the Owls shot an astounding 66.7 percent from beyond the arc and 55 percent from the field and led the Mountaineers 45-25 going into intermission. It wasn't just the Mountaineers defense that struggled though, as the Mountaineers had little success attacking Temple's zone defense. WVU committed 11 first half turnovers, a number that was in stark contrast to the six it committed in 40 minutes just one day earlier against Illinois.
The Mountaineers must have received an all-timer of a half-time speech from Bob Huggins, as they came out in the second half more energized, refocused and ready to go. West Virginia immediately had more success with its press in the second half of play as it forced several turnovers, flustered the owls and fought its way back into the game. The Mountaineers fought their way all the way back form a 20 point half time deficit to take a 67-64 lead and in that time frame Esa Ahmad played what could be the best stretch of basketball in his young career. Ahmad played as aggressive and as assertive as he ever has since entering the program a year ago and willed the Mountaineers to several buckets in the 42-19 run.
But the lead would be short-lived for West Virginia as Temple hit several of its free throws (the Owls finished 21-24 from the stripe on the night) and stormed back to take a lead it would never relinquish. The Owls were able to outlast West Virginia, who got within one bucket of taking the lead again but was never able to seal the deal and completed the victory after pulling down a huge offensive rebound when the game's score stood at 78-77. West Virginia did have a chance to tie the game on its last possession but Teyvon Myers was blocked on a three-point shot attempt.
If there is anything positive to take away from Friday's loss it is that West Virginia showed the ability to fight through adversity and come back from a 20 point deficit. However, the biggest takeaway for the Mountaineers should be that if they play two full halves, the issue of making that comeback is something they won't have to worry about.