West Virginia's Defensive Switch and Esa Ahmad's Resurgence Fueled Comeback Win over Kansas State

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - An earlier-than-usual defensive move, bolstered by key plays from Esa Ahmad, resuscitated a West Virginia team that looked all but dead in the Big 12 Championship semifinals against Kansas State.

West Virginia typically saves a jump into its 1-3-1 zone defense until late in games. Against Kansas State, struggling to score and to stop the Wildcats from driving to the basket, the Mountaineers were in desperation mode. With more than 12 minutes remaining, they pulled the defense from the playbook while trailing by eight points. Over the remaining time, K-State scored just 11 points, and made just four shots from the field. On the last possession, WVU made a change, dropping Nathan Adrian to the bottom to prevent any lobs close to the basket, and moving Jevon Carter out to a wing. Thus deterred from attacking those areas, the Wildcats tried to get the ball into the middle, where Elijah Macon hedged out beautifully to stifle Kamau Stokes. Esa Ahmad then took over, forcing a wild heave that bounced harmlessly off the rim.

"I would say West Virginia played good defense at the end of the game," Stokes said, crediting the Mountaineer zone for causing a bad shot.

"They were getting a lot of run-outs and penetrating to the rim," WVU guard Tarik Phillip said. "That was giving them opportunities to hit threes, so we wanted to stop that."

WVU's moves stuffed several potential options that K-State head coach Bruce Weber had planned.

"We tried to go a double ball screen whether it was man or zone, and we talked about D.J. diving and then, you know, Dean popping and having Wes on that weak side, and they did a good job of jamming it up," Weber explained. "[Stokes] is a little smaller. Wes was open on the skip, and maybe D.J., diving into the basket. That's what the coaches said, but they did a good job of jamming it up. I wish he would have went off a little stronger, a little quicker, and make 'em make a call down the stretch.

In the lead video, assistant coach Larry Harrison describes the decision to go to the 1-3-1, and the keys that made it work.

Fellow assistant Erik Martin also discussed the move, and discounted some thoughts that head coach Bob Huggins had said earlier in the year about the 1-3-1. Huggins noted that there were some players he couldn't play when using the defense, because they don't have the requisite length or defensive chops, but Martin said he was comfortable with anyone on the team playing it. Still, WVU went with Ahmad, Macon, Nathan Adrian, Tarik Phillip and Jevon Carter for much of the last 12 minutes, with cameos from Lamont West and Sagaba Konate.

Martin also gave props to the bounceback performance of Ahmad, who racked up the first double-double of his career with 15 points and ten rebounds. While still fighting to operate smoothly at all points, Ahmad grabbed several important rebounds, hit a pair of threes, and converted the winning free throw with 19 seconds to play. The turnaround was vital for a player who has had some tough performances down the stretch.

"My teammates kept me positive throughout the whole slump," Ahmad said. "My coaches kept my positive, and they told me I was due for a good game. I came out here and tried to give it my all, and that's what I did. I never lost confidence in myself."


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