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The GOOD Mountaineers are back, Huggins believes

Created on:   Tue, Feb 6, 2018   10:51 PM

Last modified:   Tue, Feb 6, 2018   10:51 PM

For The Dominion Post

For The Dominion Post

NORMAN, Okla. — Bob Huggins didn’t like the way his team was playing.

For almost a month, the WVU coach looked out on the basketball court and didn’t recognize the team he was watching.

During that span, the Mountaineers lost five of six games and dropped from No. 2 in the nation to No. 19.

It looked like the free fall might continue after losing to Iowa State on Jan. 31 when the team was hit by the flu.

However, over the past two games, the Mountaineers seemingly found their way back to the light. That includes a 75-73 win Feb. 5, over No. 17 Oklahoma, at Lloyd Noble Center.

“I think we’re back to being the competitive, refuse-to-lose guys that we were,” Huggins said. “We lost a couple games we could of, should of won but we just didn’t make any shots.”

WVU’s refuse-to-lose mentality showed up clearly in the final minutes of the game. The Mountaineers’ 11 point advantage was whittled to 74-69, with two minutes left.

The Mountaineers came up empty on back to back possessions while the Sooners were able to score in transition. The lead was cut to 74-73 with 24.3 seconds on the clock.

Oklahoma let the clock run down to 13.1 before fouling Esa Ahmad. The junior hit the first free-throw attempt but missed the second. Oklahoma got the rebound and raced up the court without calling a timeout.

Sagaba Konate almost forced O.U. point guard Trae Young into a turnover before Young passed the ball to Rashard Odomes under the basket. Odomes had a chance to tie the game, but Ahmad forced Odomes into a bad shot that was off the mark.

“I don’t know what happened,” Huggins said. “I think somebody tipped the ball and it was rolling around. Seemingly every one that was like that before, [Oklahoma] picked up. I think they still picked it up, but it was just too late.”

The Mountaineers were relentless on defense throughout the night. They allowed only two players from Oklahoma to score in double digits.

Young, who leads the nation in scoring and assists, scored a game-high 32 points. However, he was held to one assist. Huggins gave credit to Javon Carter for slowing the player of the year candidate. Carter had six of the team’s nine steals.

“He’s terrific,” Huggins said of Young. “But the guy guarding him is pretty good. He’s not going to play against anyone better than the guy guarding him today. He was the national defensive player of the year for a reason.”

But Huggins also credited the return of Ahmad to the lineup as a difference-maker in the game. WVU out-rebounded O.U., 38-36. But at one point in the first half, the Mountaineers had almost double the rebounds of the Sooners.

“Having Esa back helps that,” Huggins said. “Esa is a very good rebounder, and when we can get him matched with a small forward, it gives us an advantage that we don’t have other places.”

Along with their nine steals and five blocked shots, WVU forced Oklahoma into 15 total turnovers. That included hounding Young into six of them.

“I mean, I think that’s just how they play. They like to rough up the game, not make the game easy,” Young said. “They just try to play physical. I don’t think anybody else in the country plays like how they play.”

WVU held the Sooners 25 points below their season scoring average at home.

So even when the Mountaineers’ offense went cold and they stopped hitting their 3-point attempts, they were able to rely on their defense to pull them through. That is the type of team Huggins has been waiting to see again.

“That’s how we played all year until we got into that stretch where, for whatever reason, we quit taking chances,” Huggins said. “We quit trying to make things happen with our defense. We have to make things happen with our defense for us to be successful.”

The Mountaineers have a few days off before hosting Oklahoma State, at noon Saturday.