It would be silly to call a random game in February a "must win," but tonight's game against Kansas State was at the very least a "really need to win" game.
And West Virginia did just that, ending a two game losing streak by defeating the Wildcats 76-72 on Wednesday night at the WVU Coliseum, after nearly blowing a 10 point lead in the final minutes.
In a rare occurrence this season, West Virginia started the game shooting the ball really well. The Mountaineers made their first 7 shots - including 3 three pointers. Unfortunately, the defense was very leaky and K-State was able to score right with them and West Virginia led only 19-17 seven minutes in.
Although the shots stopped falling as efficiently as they were early on, the Mountaineers were able to extend their lead by becoming more aggressive on defense and attacking the Kansas State zone. With West Virginia up 35-31, Juwan Staten found Jaysean Paige for the slam on this nice play out of a timeout:
That slam started an 11-4 run (that included several layups) to end the half and West Virginia held a 46-35 lead at the break.
Kansas State, without star guard Marcus Foster (suspended), would not go away easy. West Virginia missed opportunities to put the Wildcats away, and a Justin Edwards jumper with 8:12 to go cut the Mountaineer lead to 7 at 61-54. West Virginia kept them from getting any closer until the final few minutes when the Mountaineers nearly fell apart.
With under five minutes to go, West Virginia led 67-57. Kansas State, aided by some lazy passes from the Mountaineers (2 in particular by Jevon Carter), went on a 12-0 run that was capped off by a Nino Williams and-1 to give K-State the 69-67 lead with 2:25 to go. Two Nathan Adrian free throws tied the game at 69, and a Devin Williams layup gave West Virginia the lead again at 71-69 at the 1:51 mark. The rest of the game was decided at the free throw line, and West Virginia (Gary Browne and Jevon Carter) made more than Kansas State to hang on for the 4 point victory.
Brandon Watkins had his best game of the season, and likely his best game as a Mountaineer. He led West Virginia tonight with 14 points and 9 rebounds. For some reason Watkins was nowhere to be found in the final minutes. Juwan Staten added 11 points and 6 assists. Jevon Carter and Jaysean Paige were the only other scorers in double figures, each adding 10.
Nino Williams led Kansas State with 22. Nigel Johnson and Justin Edwards each scored 10 and Thomas Gipson added 9.
The Mountaineer bench came up huge tonight, outscoring K-State's bench 47-19 and their own starting five 47-29.
- Starters: Staten, Browne, Miles, Holton, Williams
- Twice in the first half West Virginia followed up missed easy buckets with dumb decisions. First, Jonathan Holton missed a 2 footer and then went over the back on the rebound. A couple minutes later, Tarik Phillip stole the ball on the press, then missed a dunk and was called for hanging on the rim. Bob Huggins reacted exactly how you would expect.
- Until West Virginia is even adequate shooting the ball, they're going to face a zone, even against teams that rarely stray from man-to-man. The Mountaineers attacked K-State's zone fairly well, and finished the game shooting 46%.
- One of the stranger storylines of the season: Juwan Staten has been really bad at free throws in the final minutes. He went 0-4 in the final 2:39.
- FYI: The Big 12 basketball rankings will return next Monday.
Up next for the Mountaineers is a trip to Ames, Iowa to take on #14 Iowa State. The Cyclones topped West Virginia 74-72 in their first game on January 10th in Morgantown. Iowa State has gone 5-4 since that contest. The game tips at 4:00PM and will be televised on ESPN2 and streamed on the WatchESPN app.