Mountaineer effort shows what could have been
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - It was the $25,000 question.
Could West Virginia pull off a huge upset?
For WVU coach Bob Huggins, it was literally that. A win over No. 1 Kansas would mean Huggins would pocket $25,000, per his latest contract.
For most, though, the simple question was, could the Mountaineers even stay in the game? The Jayhawks had, perhaps oddly, just been named the nation's No. 1 team by the coaches. (The Associated Press poll has Michigan No. 1.)
Could the hosts hang?
The answer on this Monday night was yes.
The Coliseum was rocking - and that was for the opening scoreboard videos. Even the WVU student section - the student section! - was alive. They waved cutout heads of Oprah, President Obama, Holgorsen, Luck and Manti Te'o, along with a faceless cutout, supposedly Te'o's fictitious girlfriend.
The cutout was faceless. And early WVU was mindless.
Kansas went out to a 15-point lead. The Mountaineer comedy of errors took center stage.
An interior pass to WVU's Terry Henderson, who was then surrounded by three Kansas trees - leading to a walk. Deniz Kilicli barely grazed the rim on a shot, then fouled. He threw the ball away.
Out of a timeout, the Mountaineer inbounds pass was stolen, leading to a Travis Releford dunk. Aaric Murray threw a pass into the hands of Jeff Withey - who was an inch away.
Huggins hit the water bottle early and often.
But then there was a spark, courtesy of Murray, who had nine points in the first half. A foul-line jumper. A steal and a jam. A bucket and free throw attempt after a sweet pass from Gary Browne, who had stolen a pass.
At half, hey, it was a game at 38-30 Kansas.
In the second half, Murray looked absolutely terrific. He camped out behind the 3-point arc. He lit a fire by hitting from there.
The 6-foot-10 junior from Philadelphia caused a Kansas turnover. He blocked a Kevin Young shot from behind.
Browne stole the ball and made a layup. He was on the floor battling. Point guard Juwan Staten flashed some speed and hit jumpers. (He almost hit his first 3-point bucket of the season, but a review wiped it out.)
So no, Huggins doesn't get his $25,000. But, yes, the Mountaineers were respectable. They could look themselves in the mirror afterward.
Here's the deal though: The performance showed what Huggins expected from this team all along. It showed this team could have had a solid year. Instead, it's 9-11.
Murray strutted his stuff. Staten gave us a glimpse of his speed. Players were scrapping and diving on the floor. They were holding serve against a fine Jayhawk team.
Prior to Monday's game, WVU's team was like a tennis opponent you just keep hitting the ball back to. Sooner or later you know they'll screw up. Just hit the ball in the middle of the court and wait for it.
Against Kansas, though, West Virginia served up some aces. The Mountaineers hit some crosscourt winners.
They took the No. 2 Jayhawks down to the wire before falling 61-56. Murray showed his potential with 17 points and seven rebounds.
The West Virginia fans were into the game.
They stayed until the very end.
And did not cut out.
Reach Mitch Vingle at 304-348-4827, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/MitchVingle.