Mountaineers Go On Road To Beat Top 20 Foe
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – This one felt like a heavyweight fight.
Like a pair of punchers trading blows, West Virginia and Oklahoma went back-and-forth for a full 10 rounds of four-minute segments each, with the final blow being the fatal one as the No. 19 Mountaineers went on the road and upset the No. 17 Sooners 75-73.
With the teams leveling haymakers, WVU’s best asset was its defense. With the game at 74-73 with 13 seconds left Esa Ahmad hit a key free throw for a two-point lead and defense came up in the clutch, creating a tipped pass on the ensuing possession that ate precious seconds off the clock. The Mountaineers then defended Trae Young effectively to force the ball from his hands. Young tried to dump the ball inside, but a last-gasp contested lay-in was not to be as the Mountaineers picked up a massive victory.
“We had to grind it out,” head coach Bob Huggins said. “That’s what people expect to see from us. I think we are back, back to being the competitive, refuse-to-lose guys that we were.”
It certainly seemed like it. There was the interior play of Sags Konate, who recorded his sixth double-double with 14 points and 11 rebounds. Ahmad also added 14 while a red hot Lamont West ripped OU for 17 points, with 15 coming on his five three-pointers that were one off his career-best. Jevon Carter was his usual self, pouring in 10 points with eight assists and six steals, while Beetle Bolden continued his solid play with nine points in a balanced scoring effort.
It wasn’t as much offense, however, that won this game as it was defense. Sure, WVU made shots in the first half, putting up 50 points in grabbing the 50-42 halftime edge. But against an Oklahoma team averaging more than 90 points in entering with an undefeated home record, West Virginia was able to use a total team effort to hold down every player on the roster save Young.
The future All-American got his, with 32 points. But he finished with just one assist – nearly nine shy of his season average – and no other Sooner player managed more than eight points. It was a textbook case of how to beat Oklahoma, and it was similar to what WVU did in the first meeting in Morgantown in an 89-76 win on Jan. 6. Huggins returned to that page, but instead of Carter continually hounding Young, West Virginia rotated defenders while getting Bolden and Dax Miles involved.
It worked brilliantly, and was countered by OU head coach Lon Kruger choosing to not force Young to bring the ball up the floor against pressure. That relived some of the stress, but Young turned the ball over six times – part of 15 total Oklahoma turnovers that led to 15 WVU points – and was held to his fewest assists of the year. The previous low? That day in Morgantown when Young had just five.
“We lose a couple games that we coulda, shoulda won and we just don’t make any shots,” Huggins said. “There are a lot of things. Lamont made shots like we all know he can do. Then second half he couldn’t make one, we couldn’t make one. You come up on the short end of the stick like we did and it’s hard with the time and effort these guys put in.”
All in all, that recent losing skid seems like it’s rather in the rear view mirror as opposed to being a preview of things to come. The Mountaineers (18-6, 7-4) dominated Kansas State, and now just went on the road to defeat a top 20 team. That 14-game home winning streak for the Sooners? Gone, as the last team to win there prior to the streak is also the one which stops it in West Virginia, which now seems back in the Big 12 race with the recent loss by Kansas to Oklahoma State.
The victory vaulted WVU into sole possession of third place behind KU and Texas Tech, both at 7-3 in the league. The Mountaineers still play both one more time, Kansas on the road and Tech at home.
“Texas Tech is in the catbird seat,” Huggins said. “We need somebody to get them and then we need to get them in Morgantown.”
But first things first: Fresh off arguably the best team win of the season and having battled through the flu outbreak, the Mountaineers come home with a full four days to prepare for Oklahoma State on Saturday and then another home game against TCU on Monday. Call it the ups and downs of college basketball, but things sure look a lot brighter now than they did before the K-State contest.
“You know, there are so many people jumping on and off that bandwagon, I’m concerned for them,” said Huggins, who sported a sprouting crop of facial hair on his chin. “Hey, we win. The only bad thing is I thought I’d try and change the karma with the goatee (before Kansas State). Now I can’t shave it off until we lose.”