MORGANTOWN -- West Virginia put up a valiant fight Monday night against No. 2 Kansas, perhaps more than anyone had a right to expect from a team that has struggled against far lesser competition this season.
In the end, though, talent won out over whatever intangibles the Mountaineers had working for them at the Coliseum.
Kansas built a 15-point lead early, saw it trimmed to just two midway through the second half and four in the closing seconds, but had enough to hold off West Virginia and win, 61-56.
Still, it was all in all as encouraging a performance as this WVU team has seen in a while given the level of the competition.
"If we'd have played this way against other teams we probably would have won a few more,'' said Aaric Murray, who was instrumental in WVU's performance.
The loss was the fifth in the last six games for West Virginia (9-11, 2-5 Big 12). On the plus side, the Mountaineers' next three games (and four of the next five) are against teams at or near the bottom of the Big 12 standings -- Texas Tech, Texas and TCU.
Kansas, which was No. 1 in the coaches' poll announced Monday and No. 2 in the Associated Press media poll, won its 18th straight game, the nation's longest active winning streak. The Jayhawks (19-1, 7-0) haven't lost since a 67-64 decision to Michigan State in Atlanta on Nov. 13.
West Virginia has now lost to both of the teams ranked No. 1 in this week's polls -- Michigan is first in the media poll and Kansas in the coaches poll -- and in both games the Mountaineers trailed big early and then rallied to make things uncomfortable.
But just as was the case against Michigan back in December in Brooklyn, there wasn't enough in the tank to complete the comeback. And once again, coach Bob Huggins blamed it on focus and execution in the final minutes.
"We could have run what we were supposed to run in the fashion that it was supposed to be run,'' Huggins said when asked what his team might have done differently down the stretch.
After trailing by as many as 15 points in the first half -- the Mountaineers scored first and then gave up a 14-0 run to start the game -- it seemed for a while as if Kansas would simply run away and hide. But, as has been the case so many times this season for West Virginia, there was a comeback in store.
Led by Murray, seemingly motivated to play against 7-foot Kansas All-America Jeff Withey, the Mountaineers didn't let things get out of hand in the first half and then stayed within striking distance during the early part of the second.
The Mountaineers' most serious threat came about five minutes into that second half. Murray had made two 3-pointers since the break and his second was followed by a Gary Browne steal and layup. Suddenly the 15-point deficit was down to 42-40 and the Coliseum crowd of 12,402 was as loud as it has been all season.
"That's the way it's supposed to be,'' said Murray. "That gets you going.''
West Virginia stayed around for a while, too. In fact, when Juwan Staten made what was at first ruled a 3-pointer, the Kansas lead was down to 48-47 with 10 minutes to play.
That was as close as it would get, though. The shot was eventually ruled a 2-pointer after video review and Kansas freshman Ben McLemore scored the next four points in a 6-0 run that made it 55-46.
WVU was never within a possession after that. The Mountaineers cut it to 58-52 inside a minute and then got as close as 60-56 with 24 seconds to play. But Kansas made a free throw and denied West Virginia a shot at the basket in the finals seconds.
For the most part, it was a terrific comeback and a solid effort from a team that two days earlier was simply crushed at Oklahoma State, turning a 13-point lead into a 14-point loss. But again, lapses at the wrong times cost the Mountaineers.
"We need to compete harder,'' said Browne, who had six points and four steals. "We're not a great team. We don't have a guy we can depend on. We have to compete.''
Murray led West Virginia with 17 points, along with two blocks, two steals and including three 3-pointers. Staten had 10 points for the Mountaineers, who made it a game despite shooting just 37 percent. They made just four of 15 3-point tries and were outrebounded 36-27.
Withey and fellow senior Travis Releford led Kansas with 15 points each, while McLemore added 13. The Jayhawks shot 54.1 percent and had 34 free throws to just 15 for West Virginia.
West Virginia played an up and down first half and the results were predictable. The Jayhawks used the opportunities when the Mountaineers weren't playing their absolute best to run out to leads of as many as 15 points. West Virginia managed to close the gap a few times in front of a large, loud crowd at the Coliseum, but still trailed at the break by eight points, 38-30.
WVU got that close when Jabarie Hinds stole the ball and drove for a layup just ahead of the buzzer.
The brightest spot for West Virginia in the first half was the play of Murray, who had nine points, including a steal from Withey in the backcourt and a drive for a dunk.
Hinds, who was not in the starting lineup for the first time in his career, had eight points in the first half after sitting out almost six minutes at the start.
Withey led Kansas with 13 points in the first 20 minutes.
As is the case with all three of West Virginia's Big Monday games this season, the reward for playing two games in three days is a couple of extra days off. The Mountaineers don't play again until Saturday afternoon at Texas Tech.
But after that it's the same thing for a second week in a row. The game at Lubbock is followed by another Big Monday game at home, next week's against Texas. Then comes another break before a road trip to TCU.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickm...@aol.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1
KANSAS 61, WEST VIRGINIA 56