MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - For all that Juwan Staten accomplished offensively Saturday afternoon - and with a career-high 35 points, those accomplishments were pretty significant - West Virginia didn't beat Kansas State entirely because of what he did.
Oh, there's no question the Mountaineers would have been lost without him. In fact, Bob Huggins essentially remade his offense for K-State with Staten in mind. He wanted to spread what he called the "gang-guarding'' Wildcats in order to free shooters or, if the shooters were still covered, open the lane for Staten. It worked so well that Staten scored 30 of his 35 points either on drives to the basket or free throws that resulted from those drives.
Still, there have been plenty of times this season when Staten imposed his offensive will - he is, after all, a top-five scorer in the Big 12 - and West Virginia still lost because the Mountaineers couldn't prevent the other team from scoring even more.
Well, when it counted most in Saturday's 81-71 win over the Wildcats, defense wasn't a problem.
"When they cut it to one [68-67 with three minutes to play], I said, 'Well, why don't we just find out if we can guard and we can get stops and we can do what we're supposed to do?' '' Huggins said. "And I thought we did a great job.''
Indeed, while Staten's magnificent performance will, of course, be the everlasting image for a crowd of 10,121 at the Coliseum, it's easy to forget that when the game seemed almost destined to turn in Kansas State's favor it was defense that turned back the Wildcats.
The situation was this: After leading most of the game and by as many as 10 points, West Virginia had lost nearly all of a 68-61 lead built on the strength of two clutch, late-in-the-shot-clock drives by Gary Browne and Remi Dibo. That was with 5:22 to play, but over the next five possessions, WVU's offense went stale and Kansas State, despite missing four free throws at one point, got back within 68-67. Three minutes remained.
But then in quick order, the Mountaineers crowded Thomas Gipson and Shane Southwell near the sideline and forced a turnover. On the other end, Dibo hit the biggest non-Staten points of the game with a 3-pointer to make it 71-67. Browne then tipped a pass by KSU freshman Marcus Foster, Terry Henderson caught it and made two free throws after he was fouled. Finally, after Foster had made a free throw, the Mountaineers crowded Southwell to the sideline again and he dribbled out of bounds.
On four possessions, Kansas State scored one point and turned the ball over three times. Game, set and match.
"I thought for a three- or four-possession deal,'' Huggins would say later, "that's the best [his team's defense] has been.''
It needed to be. Kansas State coach Bruce Webber insisted that nothing that happened in the final minutes had as much to do with the outcome as did his team's first half, during which the Wildcats fell behind 39-31.
"It's Groundhog Day for us,'' said Webber, whose team is 4-0 in Big 12 home games and 1-3 on the road. "We keep replaying the same thing on the road.''
That would be an awful first half and then a better second that just isn't enough to make up for the first. Well, that may have been the case Saturday, too. WVU had to be stout on defense for that critical period because KSU made 61.5 percent of its shots from the field in the second half.
Still, defense or not, the contribution of WVU's point guard is impossible to ignore. Staten, whose previous career scoring high was 28 points, had 35 points on just 13 field goal attempts. He made a rare 3-pointer and one of his foul-line jump shots, but everything else was scored going to the basket against the defense Huggins' scheme was designed to spread.
Staten also made 18 of 21 free throws on fouls from those drives. In fact, he made 18 of 19 after missing his first two, which oddly at that point made him 1 for 9 over the course of the last two-plus games.
He had no explanation for the turnaround except that, "It's basketball.''
"I shoot free throws every day,'' he said. "It doesn't get me messed up when they don't go in.''
The win was the second in a row for the Mountaineers and the second straight over a team that had been in the Top 25 until the latest poll. West Virginia (13-9, 5-4 Big 12) beat Baylor Tuesday night in Waco, Texas. Last week K-State was No. 22 in the Associated Press poll and Baylor was No. 25.
Up next for WVU is another team in and out of the Top 25. Wednesday night brings a visit from Oklahoma (17-5, 6-3 Big 12), which was No. 23 in the most recent poll but could drop out after losing 81-75 Saturday at No. 16 Iowa State.
Kansas State (15-7, 5-4) lost for the third time in four games since routing West Virginia 78-56 two weeks ago in Manhattan, Kansas.
Terry Henderson had 13 points and Eron Harris 11 for WVU, but combined for just two after halftime, while Staten had 22. Dibo added 10 points.
Foster scored 23 to lead Kansas State.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickm...@aol.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.
West Virginia 81, Kansas State 71
Kansas State (15-7, 5-4)
Min FG FT R A P
Iwundu 25 3-5 0-2 4 3 6