One could understand the frustration of head coach Bob Huggins. His Mountaineers had started the season fast, then hit a lull over the initial conference games in winning two of three against Oklahoma State, Texas Tech and TCU. But the pressure that was now wasn't, the on-ball defense lacking, the execution on the back end left wanting. It allowed the Red Raiders to steal one on the road in a game in which WVU played as poorly as possible in several phases. And it let a better-than-expected TCU team remain in the game in what would become a double-digit victory.
But the switched flipped against Baylor, the Mountaineers mustering the fortitude and execution unseen over the first three Big 12 games in a rousing defeat of the nation's top ranked team. Press Virginia unleashed its fury, forcing Baylor into a season-high 29 turnovers and in the process snapping its own Big 12 record of 26 set against TCU last February. It continually hounded BU guards Manu Lecomte, Ishmail Wainright and Al Freeman, turning the trio into a turnover machine. Lecomte, normally as sure-handed as they come, committed five. Wainright, a supposed steady, calming influence on the offense, had six. And five other players had at least three.
"We went right back to the drawing board, right back to the principles and it definitely worked," WVU guard Tarik Phillip said of the adjustments made following the Texas Tech loss. "It was all ball pressure. They only had a couple good ball handlers that we saw. So we said when certain guys with the ball, we were going to heat them up and make them make plays. And it worked."
The Bears had 16 turnovers by the break, but committed just one over the final 7:53 of the half. That figured the segue into the second period, where Baylor would slow the game and lean on its interior size and turn the contest into a methodical march. Instead, WVU ran Baylor ragged, and by the midway point, the Bears were showing fatigue and a willingness to pack it in. With eight minutes, the game was essentially over, West Virginia continually picking the proverbial pocket of the opponent and getting routine run-outs for easy lay-ups and dunks. It eventually devolved into a highlight reel for the Mountaineers, who defeated a top five foe by more than 11 points for the first time in school history.
West Virginia shot a sizzling 54.5 percent in the second half, managed 20 assists against 12 turnovers of their own and had six blocks and 15 steals while hitting on almost 50 percent of their three-pointers. But it all started with the on-ball pressure that Baylor simply couldn't handle. Head coach Scott Drew's group can pair length, shooting and arguably the finest rebounding ability in the Big 12. What it couldn't do, at least against the Mountaineers, was put a guard combo on the floor that could handle the pressure.
Far too often, players like Wainright were forced to try and snap the press by handling. Once WVU closed the personal space, and continually got into passing lanes to eliminate options, the Bears vaunted offense - which relies heavily on open jumpers off of offensive rebounds - simply wilted. The Bears couldn't generate second and third shots because they couldn't get the first ones. They were denied looks at the bucket, and it was all based around the pressure as West Virginia finished with 13 more shots and a a solid 29 points off as many turnovers forced.
"It's ball pressure," said WVU guard Jevon Carter, who finished with five steals and 17 points. "We have been emphasizing that in practice. The loss as Texas Tech, we really didn't feel like we were pressuring them. We knew if we got up into them - nobody likes ball pressure - we would get after them. This proves if we play hard we can beat anybody in the country."
Especially if they can pair the pressure with the rebounding and offensive prowess showed in the second half. The Mountaineers, badly beaten on the boards over the opening 20 minutes, recommitted to rebounding at the break and outboarded the Bears 19-16 in the second half. They also rarely rushed shots, and were able to slowly but surely break down Baylor's vaunted 1-1-3 zone which had held foes to an average of 58.3 points per game.
"It showed we are also one of the top teams in the country," forward Esa Ahmad said in explaining the win. "Baylor has great length. It's hard to finish around them. At first it was tough. We just had to slow down. They have that length. Once we slowed it down and got in our groove, it was good for us. On defense, we were giving effort. The guys were rotating. We were executing and we got a lot of points in transition from our defense. We knew if we put enough pressure on them and rotated (we could force turnovers). We did that today and they turned it over.
"Rebounding. We knew we were getting outworked on the boards. We knew we had to box out in order to keep the lead, so that was a big emphasis in the locker room. We were feeding off each other. The crowd was great tonight. It's a great feeling. No. 1 team in the nation. It doesn't get any better than that."
The win marks the fifth in program history over the No. 1 team in nation, with three coming in Huggins' tenure, including a home win over Kansas last season and the NCAA Tournament victory over Kentucky in 2010.
"We had a pretty good idea of what they were going to do," Huggins said. "J.C. was terrific. He had such great ball pressure. Then we made rotations and our double-teams were better. Nate (Adrian) was really, really good. We had a lot of energy. When we have that, it's a lot better."