The Mountaineers built a solid early lead, then watched as Iowa State exploited individual match-ups while WVU missed free throws and failed to consistently get stops as the title dreams slipped away in an 80-74 loss here Saturday.
West Virginia had struggled in both the quarterfinal win over Texas and the semifinal victory against Kansas State, and that carried over into this game. As Esa Ahmad noted, Iowa State was "ready from the jump," and it out-hustled and out-executed the Mountaineers throughout. The Cyclones, in winning their third Big 12 Championship title in four seasons, managed to flip the script from the previous two series games, getting Monte Morris the ball and spreading the floor to allow Deonte Burton to exploit his size against guards or take players like Elijah Macon off the dribble.
The result was 17 points for Morris - despite a 1-for-7 effort from three-point range - and 16 for Burton, the two marquee players carrying ISU in its bid to avoid a season sweep against WVU. It was effective enough that, when combined with West Virginia's blend of lethargy, defensive hesitancy and lack of rebounding, easily sealed the loss.
"We didn't play well against Texas, we didn't play well against Kansas State and we sure didn't play well tonight," head coach Bob Huggins said. "That's not the way we have been playing."
And that was it in a nutshell. Up against an opponent motivated by two regular season losses to West Virginia, and a sellout crowd that was more than 95 percent ISU fans, the Mountaineers could ill afford to compound a difficult match-up with their own issues. But WVU was beaten in points in the paint, in second-chance points, in fast break points and allowing ISU to take more shots. And it gave up 11 steals to Iowa State. Those are all areas expected to be controlled by the Mountaineers, and yet the checks all went into the opposing box.
And while Morris, Burton and Bowie were hitting shots, just like the remainder of the Cyclones, West Virginia was solid from the field, at 51.8 percent. But they missed nine of their first 15 free throws, and could never cut down on the penetration, giving up driving lay-ins, alley-oop dunks and putbacks even after WVU went to the 1-3-1 with 11:40 remaining. The zone got three straight stops for the Mountaineers, but WVU could never trim the deficit to less than five points. It got within 65-60 on Teyvon Myers' lay-in with 5:48 left. But Iowa State, as it did all game, had an answer and that came in the form of two lay-ups and a dunk over the next three minutes. That pushed the lead back to 11 at 75-64 with 2:09 left, and dashed any questions about the outcome.
"We didn't get the stops we needed," Nate Adrian said. "Whenever we would cut it close, they went on another run. We never cut it to any more than five or six. We haven't shot the ball well all weekend. We have to get in the gym and get better. We gotta go back to practice and work some things out. We have five or six days now. We have won big games before, so I know we can do it. We just have to go do it."
It was a difficult development to watch after the Mountaineers (26-8) built a 16-8 lead midway through the first half by using its length and ball movement. As it had done in previous series games, the size bothered ISU early, as the Cyclones had difficulty running offense and getting anything inside. WVU got a pair of threes from Jevon Carter and Dax Miles and six more points on dunks or lay-ins. But Iowa State then slowly switched the momentum, turning the Mountaineers over 10 times during the half - most of them after the initial lead - and using a 20-6 run spanning more than six minutes to take the advantage for good.
"They were the better team," Ahmad said. "We beat them twice in the regular season and they had a little fire to them. It showed. They were hitting shots, simple as that. They got leak outs and converted. Every loose ball is important and they got a lot of them. We came up short."
Indeed, West Virginia never truly solved the puzzle of ISU's offense or itself in failing to capture the school's 14th postseason conference tournament - and just the second since 1984. The Cyclones won their fourth league title and advanced to 10-2 over the last four seasons in Big 12 Championship play.
"Early on we were moving the ball, getting easy baskets and open shots," said Carter, who along with Tarik Phillip was named to the All-Big 12 Tournament team after leading the Mountaineers with 18 points. "Later on we stopped. We started playing individually and we weren't rebounding it tonight. You've got to come to play every night. No game is ever given to you."
Miles, Ahmad and Macon all chipped in 10 points each and Teyvon Myers added nine on a series of nifty drives to the bucket. But the 13 turnovers, which matched Iowa State, poor free throw shooting and lack of rebounding displayed against the likes of Texas and K-State was too much. In the end, the team that leads the country in turnover margin, turnovers forced and steals and ranks third in scoring margin and fourth in offensive rebounds managed very little of any.
"I think Esa said it best," Huggins said afterward. "I'm kinda ready to get in the gym and and try to fix some things. All we talked about in 2010 was do what you do. You don't need to do any more. Don't do any less. Do what you do. We were kind of like that for awhile, then it creeps in to where guys who can't dribble want to dribble and guys who can't shoot want to shoot. They constantly want to do the things they can't do."