There was 2:50 remaining when Tarik Phillip drove to the bucket laid the ball in, extending West Virginia's lead to 64-50 and all but assuring a Mountaineer victory over No.2 Kansas in Lawrence. ESPN's cameras caught a number of Jayhawk fans heading for their cars to beat the post game traffic (a scene that Dick Vitale reminded us about time and time and time again for the next eight minutes of play) and why wouldn't they? West Virginia had dominated Kansas for close to 37 minutes, and it would take an almost miracle for the Jayhawks to come from behind and win the game.
But then it happened. The pressure (literally and figuratively) got to the Mountaineers and over the final minutes of regulation Kansas turned West Virginia over a number of times, got whatever it wanted on the offensive end of the floor and was aided by a handful of critical West Virginia misses from the free throw line. The result? a 21-7 Kansas run to force overtime and an 8-0 run to start the final five minutes. The Mountaineers eventually regained their composure in the added time, but it was far too late as Kansas had all but sealed the game. So what went wrong? According to Bob Huggins the answer is quite simple.
"It's pretty self-explanatory," said Huggins. "We had control of the game and then didn't make enough free throws or guard them well enough. We just didn't have the pressure."
Over the final minutes it looked as if Kansas was the team who had made its name off pressuring the ball; the Jayhakws routinely stifled the Mountaineers with their full court pressure and West Virginia failed to successfully inbound the ball, let alone get the ball past half court on multiple possessions. The fact that the Mountaineers crumbled to pressure was especially disheartening to Huggins since his team literally goes up against full court pressure every day in practice.
"We just weren't taking care of the ball," said Huggins. "We press ourselves every day so that shouldn't be a problem for us, but that's on us - mainly on me. I should have called a timeout or something. We've got to do better."
Senior forward Nathan Adrian, who regularly plays at the head of West Virginia's pressure, echoed Huggins' sentiment and took responsibility for some of the late game inbounding gaffes.
"We just weren't taking care of the ball like we know how to," said Adrian. "We press ourselves every day so that shouldn't be a problem for us. But that's on all of us. Mainly on me, because I should have called a timeout or something."
Of course, it didn't help that Kansas defenders were practically breathing on West Virginia's inbounders during the late game run, but the bottom line is that the Mountaineers should have been and need to be much more adequate against pressure defense going forward. While this one will no doubt sting for some time and be discussed for years to come, the Mountaineers must find a way to quickly put in behind them and come out with energy when they take on Texas Tech on Saturday afternoon. Adrian, who is the face of the team, will have a heavy say in making sure that happens.
"We just have to regroup, we can't do anything about it now," said the senior power forward. "We need to regroup and win the next six and make a run in the tournament."