KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — About three weeks ago, West Virginia coach Bob Huggins began fiddling with a 1-3-1 zone defense.
Kansas State wishes he never got that idea.
After struggling to contain the Wildcats’ penetration all night, Huggins slapped the zone on in the closing minutes of the Big 12 Tournament semifinals. The resulting defensive stops got the Mountaineers back in the game, and Esa Ahmad provided the go-ahead free throw with 20.2 seconds left.
More stingy defense on the Wildcats’ Kamau Stokes kept him from getting off a decent look as time expired Friday night, and the Mountaineers escaped for a hard-earned 51-50 victory.
They’ll play No. 23 Iowa State in Saturday night’s championship game.
“We didn’t do very good job on our man (defense),” Huggins said. “We decided to try a little bit of the 1-3-1 — I’m not very smart, but I’m smart enough when it works keep doing it.”
The sixth-seeded Wildcats (20-13) mostly controlled the game until Tarik Phillip tied it with a 3-pointer with 1:41 to go. Kansas State came up empty at the other end, and Ahmad was fouled in a scramble for a rebound moments later, clanking his first free throw before making his second.
The Wildcats brought the ball up court and called timeout with 10.2 seconds left.
After they inbounded to Stokes, he headed across to the right wing, where he inexplicably picked up his dribble. Tightly guarded as time ran out, he heaved a shot that hit off the rim.
“West Virginia just played good defense at the end of the game. We didn’t make the play,” Stokes said, “and just credit them for playing defense.”
Ahmad finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds, and Phillip had 13 points to help the second-seeded Mountaineers (26-7) reach the final for the second straight year. They are going for their first conference tournament title since the Big East in 2010.
Wesley Iwundu had 13 points and Stokes finished with 10 for the Wildcats, who can only hope their quarterfinal win over No. 9 Baylor will be enough to get them into the NCAA Tournament.
“We play in the best league in the country. We play the best teams in the country we’ve beaten them. We played the other ones close,” Kansas State coach Bruce Weber said. “It’s just disappointing we couldn’t win to get in the championship game.”
The way the first half played out was reflected on the benches.
The Wildcats were hustling up and down the floor, skinning knees while diving for loose balls and then laughing about it afterward. On the sideline, Weber was hopping up and down like mad, a fountain of encouragement in the din of an arena packed with purple-clad fans.
Meanwhile, the Mountaineers were openly frustrated every time a shot clanked off the iron or a whistle blew for a foul. On their sideline, Huggins spent the half ripping into everyone from his own players to the officials, often pointing out to them the foul disparity.
The Wildcats went to the line 10 times in the first half. West Virginia never did.
The sum of all that was a first half dominated by the Kansas State defense. It held West Virginia to 6-for-32 shooting and was the biggest reason the Wildcats led 25-16 at the break.
The Wildcats kept the Mountaineers at arm’s length most of the second half, but the Press Virginia defense finally started to force turnovers. And when Kansas State began struggling against the zone, the Mountaineers seized an opening and clawed back to tie the game.
Then their veteran poise allowed them to make the plays that mattered in the final minute.
“We’re always in the game,” Phillip said. “It’s just because of the style that we play, we create turnovers and stuff like that, but we’re always in games.”
Kansas State split with West Virginia in the regular season and went 2-1 against Baylor, so there are some marquee wins on its NCAA Tournament resume. But the Wildcats could have avoided a tense wait on Selection Sunday had they managed to put this one away.
West Virginia survived despite a lousy performance from star guard Jevon Carter, who went 1 for 12 from the field and 1 for 7 from beyond the arc. The Mountaineers also were dominated in the paint, even though they had a 44-35 rebounding advantage.
Kansas State heads west on I-70 back to Manhattan to await its NCAA Tournament fate.
West Virginia gets ready for the Cyclones on Saturday night.
West Virginia 63,
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — West Virginia’s Bob Huggins sure sounds motivated by last year’s runner-up finish at the Big 12 Tournament, but don’t ask the often-irascible coach whether his players feel the same way.
“I don’t know, man. You’re asking me to know what they’re thinking,” Huggins said after his No. 11 Mountaineers cruised to a 63-53 win over Texas in the quarterfinals Thursday night. “I wish I knew.”
He should at least feel confident that Jevon Carter is sufficiently motivated. The star guard poured in 21 points to give West Virginia (25-7) its only consistent offense, while the rest of his guys turned up their trademark defense to make life miserable for the Longhorns.
Texas (11-22) wound up with 14 turnovers, failed to score the 5:34 of the game and never got star freshman Jarrett Allen involved in the game — he managed just nine points and 10 rebounds.
“We’re trying to win. We didn’t get it done in the finals a year ago and there’s no sense playing if you’re not playing to win,” said Huggins, whose team will play Kansas State in the semifinals Friday night. “We’re trying to win.”
Andrew Jones had 13 points for the Longhorns, who matched a school record with their 22nd loss.
“I thought they did what West Virginia does so well. They were the more aggressive team and over the course of the game, I think there was a cumulative effect of the way they played,” Texas coach Shaka Smart said. “Obviously, they shot the ball better from outside. That was a big difference as well.”
The No. 10 seed Longhorns, who rallied past Texas Tech in the opening round to snap a seven-game skid, managed to forge a lead midway through the first half despite digging an early hole.
But the Mountaineers’ in-your-shorts defense began to pay off with turnovers, and they went on a brief run into the locker room. Then, they extended their 39-30 advantage to as many as 13 points in the second half, taking a 47-34 lead when Sagaba Konate threw down a dunk with 15 minutes to go.
Kerwin Roach Jr. stopped the run with a 3-pointer, and by the time Mareik Isom scored a few minutes later, the orange-clad Longhorns had closed to 47-41 with 12 minutes left.
But try as they might, the Longhorns couldn’t climb all the way back.
Carter’s fifth 3 off a steal by Nathan Adrian pushed West Virginia’s lead back to 57-46. Adrian’s put-back a couple minutes later made it 61-51. And the Mountaineers’ defense did the rest, preventing the Longhorns from getting any good looks in the game’s closing minutes.
“West Virginia plays hard and aggressive. That’s kind of their MO,” Jones said. “At certain points of the game, them being overly aggressive took us out of our offense a little bit.”
Asked later whether top-ranked Kansas’s loss to TCU earlier in the day provided a wakeup call for West Virginia, Carter replied: “We didn’t really pay much attention to what other teams are doing.”
“It’s about us,” he said. “We just take it one game at a time. You can’t win the next game if you don’t win the current game. That was the message to the team: Just focus on this game.”