Sure, the Mountaineers' Press Virginia moniker played a key role in the 81-77 victory over the Aggies. WVU forced 23 turnovers, resulting in 25 points, and flustered Texas A&M badly late in the first half, when a 17-0 run turned a tight tussell into a 45-29 blowout by the break. From there, it seemed, West Virginia would cruise over an opponent badly struggling on the offensive end this season.
But as it has against Oklahoma, Kansas State, Kansas and more, the Mountaineers allowed a double digit lead to shrink to within one possession by a series of stagnant play on both ends. WVU lost its focus, and with it went the energy and intensity required to play the pressing style as A&M rallied from a one-time 20-point deficit to pull within 79-77 with 4.4 seconds left before Esa Ahmad hit two free throws to seal a first win in the four-year history of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge. Frankly, it should have been easier.
Texas A&M eventually got a handle on the press for at least segments of the game, and that and a late hot streak from three-point range combined with WVU's poor free throw shooting tightened the game more than it should have. So how did West Virginia pick up its 17th win of the season against a stubborn foe? In addition to the press, the Mountaineers showed patience within the halfcourt sets on offense, steadily moving the ball and sliding A&M's sheer length an size around to where it could attack inside, or kick the ball back out for excellent step in looks. That was especially apparent during the early stages, when WVU was forced away from the bucket but still managed to hit nine jump shots over their first 10 made field goals.
The lack of lay-ups at least partially stemmed from the fact the Mountaineers weren't getting run outs and weren't scoring in transition. Yet West Virginia still operated an efficient, effective motion offense that put it ahead 26-18 over the first 12-plus minutes. Defensively, it largely controlled Texas A&M early save a handful of putbacks, and that continued into the second half after WVU used the 17-0 run to build a 16 point margin. Sags Konate and Elijah Macon protected the rim, and Nate Adrian managed to clog passing lanes to further slow a methodical Aggie offense.
The issues came when the intensity lessened, and West Virginia relaxed in the press. That allowed A&M to routinely snap it and attack the bucket, leaving clear lanes and number advantages for transition points. In the first half, the Aggies were largely forced into their half court sets after managing the pressure. In the second, they got easier looks at the rim on the run, and could have made the game closer much earlier had they been able to convert more of those opportunities.
"It is something we have had a problem with," Adrian said. "It's not paying attention and not playing as hard as we should. It's people not listening. We get told what to do every day."
Those effort and attention-to-detail issues eventually bled into aspects of the half court defense, which lost shooters inside the final 10 minutes, including allowing guard JC Hampton - the team's best three-point shooter - to hit a trio of treys in the final 90 seconds which created unneeded tension in what should have already been a decided game.
"If we don't come to play we can be stopped," WVU guard Jevon Carter said afterward. "If we play to our capability, I think we can be the best in the country. We let up, started getting careless on the offensive end. We don't guard as hard and teams start to come back. We turned it over too many times. I think we did all right. That's basketball. That happens sometimes."
Indeed, this was the definition of a get-through game, and the No. 18 Mountaineers (17-4, 5-3 Big 12) did just that in finishing the nonconference schedule with a 12-1 mark. It wasn't necessarily the most aesthetically-pleasing performance, but WVU did manage to show enough in the halfcourt on both ends to overcome lackadaisical pressure and the lapses that accompany it, along with the latest ho-hum effort from the line at a paltry 52.2 percent on 12-for-23 shooting.
"It should have been better, but it wasn't," Adrian said. "We got a win. Time to move on."