Esa Ahmad scored a career-high 27 points while WVU showcased its finest fundamental defensive display in weeks as the Mountaineers withstood a late Kansas run, outscoring the Jayhawks 27-10 over the last nine minutes to secure a second win over the nation's top team this season. It was arguably a more impressive mental performance than that shown versus Baylor, when West Virginia easily handled the then-No. 11 Bears 89-68 on January 10, as the team has been tested over the two weeks since, suffering upset losses to the bottom of the Big 12 barrel.
But a home match-up against Kansas has often been the cure for what ails, and such was the case again as WVU managed to limit arguably the best backcourt in the league in Frank Mason, Devonte' Graham and freshman phenom Josh Jackson. Sure, the threesome poured in 54 points. But they were never truly able to attack the rim consistently, instead being cutoff by a WVU defense with renewed vigor while Sags Konate, Elijah Macon and Esa Ahmad patrolled the backside, protecting against putbacks and offering timely help side defense.
On offense, the team flashed a lethal combination of solid shooting, interior scoring, the ability to convert at the free throw line and control of the boards. It was, in the end, all too much for Kansas to overcome, as the Jayhawks' 18-game winning streak was soundly snapped in the 85-69 victory which marked the fourth consecutive season the Mountaineers have taken out Kansas inside the WVU Coliseum. So what's the key variable thread between this West Virginia team, the one who looks like it can play - and beat - any team in the nation, and the ones that stumbled against the likes of Oklahoma and Texas Tech, among others?
Jevon Carter might have uncovered the secret.
"We gotta play like we are losing every possession," Carter said. "There was a spurt in the game where we took the lead and I was telling the team 'Let's play like we are losing.'" We continued to play like we are losing. We stayed after it. We don't let down. We don't start (thinking it's OK to turn it over) when we got a lead, or a man scores and it's OK because we got a lead."
And that, as much as anything, was the difference tonight. One could quickly tell that effort, and it's effect, were going to be no problem for the Mountaineers. They attacked Kansas early, with Ahmad throwing down a thunderous dunk and the guards routinely penetrating for lay-ins near the rim. On defense, WVU flourished over the final five minutes of the opening half by putting the clamps down individually, making a series of steals and contesting plays by defending the rim and changing shot direction. It added to an 18-4 run spanning both periods that turned a 31-26 deficit into a 44-35 lead early in the second half.
The Mountaineers maintained pressure from there, and were able to overcome the psychological challenge of again allowing a double digit advantage to disintegrate into a a one-point Kansas lead at 59-58 with 10 minutes left. When similar circumstances occurred against Oklahoma and Texas Tech, West Virginia wilted mentally and ceased giving effort. That compounded the other issues, and led to poor fundamental play throughout. There was none of that this time, as WVU continued to work at both ends, using ball movement and second chances to create points while also throttling KU's forwards on the inside. The Mountaineers (16-4, 5-3) finished with a 34-20 edge in points in the paint and were able to control the defensive boards successfully over the final 10 minutes, when the Jayhawks were outscored by 17 points after the brief lead.
"We guarded like we know how to," Carter said. "The last couple games that's something we haven't been doing and today we guarded. We knew their team played through their guards and if we stopped their guards we were going to have a chance to win. Numbers don't like: When we win, we don't turn the ball over, we shoot it well and when we lose we turn it over and don't shoot it well.
"We just wanted to. We knew teams were going to try to drive it at us because that's what everybody has been doing. So in practice, we got back to the basics. We started guarding the ball and started taking pride in stopping our man on defense. We gotta start doing this night in and night out."
It's the key to the remainder of the season. Sure, there will be games when the Mountaineers simply don't have the juice they need on a routine basis. But those times should be the exception to the rule. West Virginia must bring its intensity, focus and effort over this final 11 regular season games, starting Saturday in the final nonconference tilt against Texas A&M. Do that, and play like they are indeed behind on a possession-by-possession basis, and WVU can regain its footing among the nation's Top 10 teams, and secure a solid postseason seeding. Don't, and they're wallow in the mire of their own implosion, which was already glimpsed over the previous three games.