Mountaineers back on the bubble
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Eron Harris is admittedly clueless as to how NCAA tournament selections work, so he wasn't ready to say that he and his West Virginia basketball teammates are in a position to still grab one out of thin air.
But after the Mountaineers finally got the signature win they had been looking for all season, Harris was more than ready to proclaim the Mountaineers a whole lot better than anyone really thought.
Anyone, that is, except themselves.
"We've always known our potential,'' WVU's sophomore guard said. "It was just a matter of buying in. It was just a matter of giving 100 percent every time. It was a matter of being unselfish. It was a matter of having the will.
"I think [Saturday afternoon] we had all of that.''
Indeed, the Mountaineers might have had all of that and more.
In front of a raucous crowd of 14,038 at the Coliseum, West Virginia stunned No. 8 Kansas by storming out to a 25-point lead, holding a big edge most of the afternoon and then finally staving off a furious comeback by Andrew Wiggins and the Jayhawks.
It all added up to a 92-86 upset of a potential NCAA No. 1 seed and revived, at least for the moment, the Mountaineers' flickering hopes of sneaking into that tournament themselves.
"We just beat the No. 1 team in the conference and we were blowing them out most of the game,'' Harris said. "That should show to the country that West Virginia has great potential.''
Whether that potential was realized too late remains to be seen. The Mountaineers (17-14, 9-9 Big 12) now head to the Big 12 tournament that begins Wednesday in Kansas City, Mo., probably needing at least another win or two or even three to earn an NCAA bid. They will begin play Thursday, having earned the final first-round bye a few hours after their win when Iowa State beat Oklahoma State.
But regardless of how that turns out and where the Mountaineers wind up playing in the postseason, they will have this to look back on as one of those rare shining moments in an otherwise wildly inconsistent season.
How did they manage to dominate Kansas for so long? Well, the Mountaineers shot 52.9 percent for the game after opening the game by shooting 70 percent in the first 10 minutes. Freshman Devin Williams had a surrealistic first half with 18 points on perfect shooting, Juwan Staten did what Juwan Staten does (24 points, nine assists) and Eron Harris was on fire when it mattered most, draining five 3-pointers among his 28 points.
Kansas coach Bill Self, whose team was so disjointed that he used all of his time outs in the first 23 minutes, saw all of that.
"I thought West Virginia played great,'' Self said. "Staten controlled the game, Harris played great and Williams was by far the best big man on the floor.''
With a career-high 22 points and his third straight double-double with 13 rebounds, Williams was certainly the best big man on the floor. But much of that was because Kansas freshman Joel Embiid sat out a second straight game nursing a sore back. Self, though, refused to use that as an excuse, pointing out that Williams did much of his damage away from the basket with clutch mid-range jump shots.
"I'm not sure it would have made a difference,'' Self said.
What almost did make a difference was the play of Wiggins. The phenomenal freshman, who played last season at Huntington Prep, had what both Self and WVU's Bob Huggins agreed was probably his best game ever, and that's saying a lot.
Wiggins finished with 41 points, eight rebounds, five steals and four blocked shots before fouling out in the final minute. And it was Wiggins who almost single-handedly brought Kansas back from 25 points late in the game. He got the margins to 78-68 with 6:15 to play before leaving with his fourth foul. He stayed on the bench only a few seconds and when he returned the Jayhawks got within 85-80.
But Kansas (23-8, 14-4) never really had a chance after that, though, when WVU made its free throws.
Again, the heroes for West Virginia were many. Williams was deadly early, scoring 10 straight at one point, accounting for every point in a 9-2 WVU run that snapped a 9-all tie and gave the Mountaineers the lead for good.
Staten and Harris were even more valuable from there out, but others pitched in, too. Remi Dibo hit back-to-back 3s in the run that expanded a 50-38 halftime lead into a 64-39 bulge before the first TV timeout of the second half. That's when Self used his final timeouts of the game.
Gary Browne also pitched in, drawing Wiggins' fourth foul and then dropping in a 3-pointer a few seconds later. All of that was before Wiggins went off, though, leading a charge in which Kansas went on a 12-0 run to close within that 85-80 score. On the other end, WVU was trying to milk the clock and was instead running off time and then turning the ball over, three straight possessions once.
"I don't know if that was a bad thing,'' Huggins said of running time off the clock. "We had the ball in [Staten's] hands and I thought he could have gotten to the free-throw line more than he did.''
As for those NCAA chances, Huggins wasn't ready to make any predictions about what his team still needs to do. Well, except one.
"We just have to go win some games,'' he said.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.
WEST VIRGINIA 92, KANSAS 86
kansas (23-8, 14-4)
Min FG FT R A P
Black 22 1-4 0-0 4 1 2
Ellis 25 5-10 4-4 5 1 14
Selden 24 3-9 0-0 3 2 8
Tharpe 16 0-3 0-0 0 0 0
Wiggins 39 12-18 15-19 8 2 41
Mason 18 3-4 1-4 0 2 10
White 3 0-1 0-0 0 0 0
Wesley 2 0-0 0-0 0 0 0
Greene 5 1-2 0-0 1 1 3
Frankamp 15 0-6 0-0 0 0 0
Traylor 24 2-4 2-4 7 0 6
Lucas 7 1-1 0-1 2 0 2
Totals 200 28-62 22-32 31 9 86
WEST VIRGINIA (17-14, 9-9)
Min FG FT R A P
Dibo 11 2-3 0-0 1 0 6
Williams 34 8-10 6-7 13 1 22
Adrian 16 1-3 0-0 1 0 3
Staten 39 5-11 14-20 5 9 24
Harris 37 8-14 7-8 1 3 28
Browne 24 1-6 2-2 5 1 5
Henderson 15 2-4 0-0 1 0 4
Watkins 12 0-0 0-3 2 0 0
Noreen 12 0-0 0-0 3 1 0
Totals 200 27-51 29-40 37 15 92
Halftime - WVU 50-38. 3-point goals - KU 8-23 (Ellis 0-1, Selden 2-5, Tharpe 0-2, Wiggins 2-5, Mason 3-4, White 0-1, Greene 1-1, Frankamp 0-4), WVU 9-16 (Dibo 2-3, Adrian 1-2, Harris 5-7, Browne 1-3, Henderson 0-1). Fouled out - KU 2 (Selden, Wiggins), WVU (None). Technical fouls - KU (None), WVU 1 (Team). Attendance - 14,083.