Well, it did get ugly, but that particular picture was painted in the crimson and cream of Oklahoma rather than the gold and blue of WVU. The Mountaineers painted a masterpiece over the final 37 minutes, and in a stunning turnaround, cut around and through the befuddled Oklahoma defense for 92 points. The resulting 92-68 knockout of the powerful Sooners came in front of a shocked OU crowd in Oklahoma City and firmly reestablished WVU's position in the hunt for an NCAA tournament bid. How did it happen? Let's go inside the numbers to find out.
First, WVU's offense created a number of easy shots after the tough opening moments. With Oklahoma trying to use its greater size to squash the Mountaineers, WVU simply ran out the back door. Time and again, OU defenders overplayed West Virginia on the wing, only to see Joe Herber or Mike Gansey make backdoor cuts or curls for layups. Even J.D. Collins, positioned in the corner when the Sooners went to a zone, dashed along the baseline for an assist and then a foul on shot attempt. West Virginia made a stunning 24 of its 28 two-point field goal tries -- a percentage that left Sooner coach Kelvin Sampson embarrassed.
Coming into the game, I though West Virginia would have to make at least ten threes to have a chance to win the game. The Mountaineers only made eight, but still won going away because it shot an eye-popping 85.7% from inside the arc.
Second, OU's offensive scheme made about as much sense as France's foreign policy. The Sooners were all over the board, first bombing away from outside, then sensibly riding its inside game, but finally self destructing.
In the first half, typically poor-shooting Michael Neal hit four three-point attempts, giving him a career-high 16 points with the game only half-completed. Emboldened by his uncharacteristic hot streak, Neal proceeded to hoist a grand total of 16 shots (more than any Mountaineer). The problem was that Neal's hot hand had predictably cooled, and balls that dropped in the opening half began clanging off the rim like a blacksmith's hammer on an anvil. Neal did not score in the second half, and his untimely shots contributed mightily to OU's demise.
His teammates in the backcourt, Terrell Everett and David Godbold, didn't fare much better. The trio combined for a cover-your-eyes awful 8-31 from the field, including 4-17 from three-point range. Why the guards felt compelled to keep firing away was a mystery, especially with teammate Taj Gray dominating inside.
Gray, who bulled his way to 31 points on 11-14 shooting, led OU's second half comeback, but was inexplicably ignored as the Sooners drew with five points in the second half. Neal and Everett put up consecutive three-point attempts early in the shot clock, and WVU gladly responded with an 8-2 spurt to again draw comfortably ahead. By the time OU again tried to get the ball inside, it was too late.
A third big factor in the game was the way WVU spread the floor to neutralize the impact of Gray and Kevin Bookout on the defensive end. Whether facing zone or man, West Virginia kept its offensive spacing in immaculate form for much of the game. The tactic was so effective that Bookout, an awesome force on the offensive boards, became a non-factor, mostly because he was so lost on the defensive end. With Gray guarding Kevin Pittsnogle, Bookout had no good matchup inside, and was forced to guard players such as Frank Young and Mike Gansey on the perimeter. That took him away from the basket, and opened the lane for the Mountaineers' layup line. In turn, the defensive problems seemed to affect him mightily on the offensive end, where he scored just four points and collected only one offensive board.
Bookout's performance carried over into the rebounding area, which figured to be a huge advantage for the Sooners. And while they did manage a 28-22 rebounding edge, it wasn't quite the avalanche they were expecting. Of course, WVU's stellar shooting percentage had something to do with limiting the number of rebound chances the Sooners, had, the Mountaineers also did a creditable job of battling the powerful OU front line. Kevin Pittsnogle, who is routinely criticized for not mixing it up more inside, grabbed six boards and gave maximum effort against the OU big men. Even guard Patrick Beilein dropped down from his wing spot on the 1-3-1 to snare four important caroms and give WVU help on the glass when it needed it most.
Finally, this win ended up being about ‘team' over ‘me'. Every player that saw the floor for the Mountaineers played well, from Rob Summers' short stint in which he played man-to-man and did not allow an OU score in the lane, to Pittsnogle's and Herber's iron man stints. Mike Gansey didn't force up shots like the Oklahoma guards, Darris Nichols played with intensity and forced the action, and Patrick Beilein continued to display a more refined floor game, showing that he can contribute (four assists) without scoring a lot of points. Their games contrasted mightily with those of some of their OU counterparts, which, though long on flash (the Sooners had a few highlight reel dunks) didn't contain nearly the substance of West Virginia's performance.
None of this should be a surprise to WVU fans, who have been treated to such shows time and again over the past three seasons. And although I was worried early on, in the end, I relearned a valuable lesson. When it comes to beauty, WVU basketball may have the market cornered.