MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The words sounded almost silly when they came out of Jalen Bridges’ mouth during West Virginia’s post-game Zoom call with the media, but he was telling us that coach Bob Huggins had called what was a rather uneventful 69-47 victory over a dreadful Kansas State team the biggest win of the year.
True, he wouldn’t have said that had it found a way to beat No. 1 Gonzaga earlier in the year, or if they had hung on through the final seconds of the last game they played two weeks ago before the COVID-19 pandemic spread through the basketball facility, losing to No. 4 Texas, 72-70.
Kansas State is the last-place team in the Big 12 and had lost five in a row coming into the game, which made you wonder why it meant so much to Huggins.
“I thought it was the biggest win of the year because we were coming off a loss where we could have, should have, won,” Huggins expanded, referring back to the Texas heartbreaker. “Then we get hit with COVID-19 stuff. We really hadn’t had a time where we could practice. We were down to four guys … not all because of COVID, but contact tracing and everything that goes with it. And we had a guy that needed some rest … hard to get anything done with four guys.”
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In other words, this was a big game because the Mountaineers could have reacted in a negative manner.
They could have let the Texas loss linger and play on their minds for two weeks. They could have come out thinking this would be an easy game and, if not ready to play, could have let it slip away.
It’s hard enough to survive on the road in the Big 12 if everything is going right, but with all the Mountaineers had been through, they were walking a tightrope wearing a blindfold, unsure what might happen.
There’s something about doing what you have to do to survive and that’s what the Mountaineers did. They turned up the defense and that allowed them to turn the ball over and over, forcing a young, sloppy K-State team into a scene out of a Three Stooges movie.
“I felt really good about what we did defensively,” Huggins admitted. “I thought we did a beteter job.. We wouldn’t be sitting here with three league losses if we guarded as well as we did tonight.”
The defense allowed them to open a 21-4 lead early and to ride it right through halftime.
But there was another challenge. How many times have we all seen a basketball team have a big lead, then suddenly come apart when an opponent hits a hot streak, which was what Kansas State did?
Early in the second half, Selton Miguel figured out the Mountaineer defense. He scored Kansas State’s first nine points of the second half and all of a sudden, that double figure league had been cut in half and stood at eight points with the Wildcats in possession of the ball and taking an open three, that had it gone in would have cut it to a five-point game.
There certainly was reason to worry, but all of a sudden WVU found a new hero. While Deuce McBride and Jalen Bridges had been doing most of the offensive work, Taz Sherman came to life.
Sherman had not hit a first-half field goal but right then, with the lead at eight points, he canned a pair of smooth, back-to-back threes and disaster had been averted.
WVU’s moxie would not be tested down the stretch for the lead was back out to 14 points, then 16 and Kansas State had nothing left to mount another run.
Huggins was able to do some things he wanted to do, get some players some playing time, make use of Emmitt Matthews Jr.’s skills on a couple of occasions, go with four guards to protect the basketball and to give him something just as valable, a group of players on the floor who could make free throws if the Wildcats decided to foul.
How often over the years has WVU been vulnerable down the stretch due to its free throw shooting? But now he had Sherman, Deuce McBride and Jordan McCabe on the floor and also could bring Sean McNeil, his best free throw shooter, into the game if necessary.
WVU finished with 17 of 22 free throws made successfully, keeping Kansas State an arm’s reach away.
Those guys also were passing the ball and protecting it.
“Look at how we scored,” Huggins said. “We scored when we passed the ball.”
Indeed they did, having 17 assists on 22 field goals, oddly the same number of free throws made and attempted.