The Mountaineers turned to the 1-3-1 defense with 12 minutes remaining, riding the look to a closing 20-11 run that rallied them past K-State 51-50 to advance to a second consecutive Big 12 Championship final against Iowa State on Saturday.
"They were getting a lot of run-outs and penetrating to the rim," guard Tarik Phillip said. "That was giving them opportunities to hit threes, so we wanted to stop that."
That they did, limiting Kansas State to just one three-pointer over the final dozen minutes while the offense finally found an operable gear and hit three three-pointers over the final 6:24 to aid the comeback. It was finally completed when Esa Ahmad capped his 10-point outburst over the last 10 minutes with a free throw that swished through to put WVU ahead by the final core with 19 seconds left.
Kansas State set-up for one last possession, looking for a double ball screen to give the guards an option of which way to attack. But West Virginia - which switched Nate Adrian down low to Jevon Carter's spot to eliminate the backside lob to forward DJ Johnson - used the size of Ahmad and Elijah Macon to swallow up Kamau Stokes on the wing. The guard wilted under the length, and was forced into an off-balance prayer at the buzzer which bounced harmlessly away as the Mountaineers breathed both a sigh of relief and new life into their Big 12 title dreams.
"I just got really big," Macon explained. "We didn't want to give them penetration and we didn't want to foul. We wanted to force them into a bad shot. I'm actually kinda teary-eyed right now, just getting back here with these guys after all we have been through."
Along with that tear drop in the eye, there figures to be quite a bit of the misty taste of moonshine in West Virginia tonight. But it not only seemed improbable, but nearly impossible after among the worst offensive first halves in the Bob Huggins era. That the Mountaineers seemed lost was an understatement. WVU scored a season-low 16 points in the opening period, failing to find any offensive flow or identity, and couldn't effectively get the ball on the interior. It missed its first six shots, 11 of its first 14 and 26 of 32 overall in managing just six first half field goals - by far the fewest of the season in any half and a tie for WVU's fewest ever in Big 12 Championship play.
That continued into the second, when the Mountaineers scored four points over the first four minutes. But then the zone changed the entire flow of the game, forcing K-State away from the bucket and eliminating the Wildcats' penetration. That in turn slowed their offensive flow, and allowed WVU to begin to play catch-up via a methodical style that ground away at the lead like a constricting snake. Kansas State could feel their lifeblood of good looks from the blocks and step-in shots slipping away, but there wasn't much they could do about it.
"We just missed shots (in the first half)," said Ahmad, who finished with a game-high 15 points to go with 10 rebounds for his first career double-double. "We weren't attacking the basket and we fel like we were settling for threes. We talked about that at halftime. We wanted to get to the rim, and that's what we did."
Still, try explaining a win with an overall shooting percentage of 26.7 percent. One can only turn to Huggins' continual mantra that defense and rebounding travel. And that it did, 860 miles to the heart of the nation as WVU showed theirs.
"Coaching," Huggins joked. "I told 'em at halftime we've just got to find ways to score. We've got to get more shots, either by turning people over or rebounding the ball."
In the end, West Virginia turned a one-rebound halftime deficit into a nine rebound advantage, and took 14 more shots than Kansas State while forcing 11 turnovers and committing eight. The Wildcats managed just one point off their forced turnovers, while WVU finished with 13, with other edges in bench points (20-8) and second-chance points (12-4).
"Everybody who comes here comes here to win, and now we have another opportunity to win," said Huggins, whose team lost in the finals to Kansas last year. "Let's not let another opportunity slip away from us."
If the Mountaineers can complete the feat, it would make West Virginia the third team in the 21-year history of the Big 12 to win both the men's and women's postseason championships in the same season, and the first since Oklahoma in 2002.