The No. 9 Mountaineers led Texas Tech by six points with little more than a minute left, and seemed in comfortable position to close out their 21st win of the season in exacting a bit of revenge. But then the similar tale began to unravel again, from missed free throws and empty offensive possessions to lack of rebounding and a defense that couldn't contain TTU's Keenan Evans. The guard scored nine points over the final 71 seconds - part of a stretch in which he scored 17 of the Red Raiders' 19 points - in rallying Tech to a 64-64 tie at the end of regulation.
Gone was the momentum West Virginia built with a 12-3 run that turned a three-point deficit into a 50-45 lead with 10 minutes left. With it went the confidence for a group which had failed to close out a series of games this season, many with double digit leads late, and had yet to shake the overtime demons with an 0-3 mark in extra time this season. After the collapse against Kansas that saw the Mountaineers blow a 14-point lead with just 2:45 left, what transpired against Texas Tech was akin to watching the same story play out. It didn't have a different feel or look. If anything, the images mirrored each other.
Unstoppable opposing guard play late, the inability to both get an offensive rebound and then convert, the allowance of a series of excellent looks from the interior and the uncanny knack for not hitting from the field. West Virginia, somehow, managed to go the final 5:42 of regulation without scoring from the floor, then repeated the feat in the first overtime. The entire ordeal, in fact, encompassed 10:44 of game time in the most crucial of stretches, and the sordid affair carried into a second overtime after - you guessed it - a missed free throw gave Tech a chance with the game tied at 70-70.
But then, these Mountaineers somehow flipped the script. For a team that operates largely on momentum and the offensive generated by its defense, Jevon Carter's steal and lay-in after the second overtime tip-off was huge. It finally snapped the field goal drought, gave WVU the lead for good and induced some energy into a team that was again on the verge of failing to secure what at one point seemed a locked win. Carter's score segued into two consecutive stops on the defensive end, along with four combined points from Elijah Macon and Daxter Miles, the latter a thunderous put-back dunk off a miss. Suddenly, with a series of offensive rebounds, finishes near the rim and a trio of stops to start the second overtime, West Virginia had both its mojo and MO intact. The 6-0 burst was among the biggest of the season, and it keyed the 13-4 scoring in double OT that secured the win and stopped the flow of opposing team rallies and overtime losses.
"We've been in this position all year," Carter said. "All of our losses have been close. We were losing them early. Now it's time for us to start pulling them out. We just kept going at them. It did seem like they were losing their legs. A lot of their shots were coming up short. We gotta do a better job rebounding, though, after they put it up. And guard, guard, guard, guard, guard. We gotta guard and rebound. That's all (Huggins) was talking about. Guard and rebound."
West Virginia managed to do neither over the final two minutes of regulation, but both in the final overtime periods. It's become the nature of this up-and-down group, where no lead feels truly safe, yet no foe too difficult to overcome. To put the finger on the pulse of this group is to poke and prod around, never truly being sure exactly what you've got, and how long you've got it. It was 38 minutes in Lawrence, and portions of the 50 minutes in this one.
"It was a must-win for us," Tarik Phillip said. "We had opportunities to win the game down in Lawrence. We were just one step away."
Which was how it has been for much of the season. Few teams have wins are as impressive as West Virginia's, and fewer still have six losses by a combined 22 points, including three in overtime, and a foursome of blown double-digit advantages. Which is why the outcome of this contest was so imperative. The Mountaineers (21-6, 9-5) needed to convince themselves that they could win a close game, finish a foe in overtime. And that convincing would only come with a concrete, hard mark in the win column, which is just what players like Carter (24 points), Elijah Macon (17 points and 12 boards for his first career double-double) and Phillip (first WVU player since Truck Bryant in 2010 to go 10-for-10 at the line) delivered.
"It was a matter of getting stops. We locked down, buckled down when we needed to and got stops," Phillip said. "That was the main thing. They were getting tired. I know they were because we were. It came down to getting stops and hitting free throws. Huggins said free throws are going to win us games, and it's the truth. These guys are fighting to get into the NCAA Tournament, we are fighting for a higher seed. It was a must win."
As is Texas, which visits the Coliseum with little more than a 48-hour turnaround. It wouldn't have been pretty, the Longhorns coming in with West Virginia having given another one away in overtime. But now, the psychological path seems cleared for a solid stretch drive, and one in which WVU should be favored in three of its final four games.