MANHATTAN, Kan. — Bob Huggins exited West Virginia’s locker room Wednesday simply shaking his head. Assistant coach Larry Harrison — his light blue shirt now untucked — raised his eyes skyward, as he pounded his fist against the coaches’ locker room door.
Erik Martin, another WVU assistant, came out of the locker room loosening his tie, as if he had just seen something unbelievable.
Maybe he had.
In what continues to be a baffling and disappointing season, the Mountaineers conjured up something new in a 71-69 loss against Kansas State, in front of 9,590 fans inside Bramlage Coliseum.
Make no mistake, the Mountaineers (8-7, 0-3 Big 12) continued to be alarmingly frustrating … they just found a new way to get there.
Try this one on for size: West Virginia lost its third consecutive Big 12 game to open the conference season after building up a 21-point lead in the second half and then building up a 10-point lead after nearly losing all of the 21-point lead.
It was the biggest comeback in Kansas State history.
Lamont West, who led the Mountaineers with 21 points, summed it up best:
“We couldn’t guard them,” West said. “It was that simple.”
And what about Kansas State guard Barry Brown, who finished with 29 points, including the go-ahead basket on a drive to the rim with 28.9 seconds remaining?
“We couldn’t guard him, either,” West said.
“We tried everybody on him,” Huggins added. “It wasn’t like he did those things on one particular guy. The thing that stumps me is that [Brown] is right-handed and he’s a very heavy right-handed driver and a very heavy right-handed finisher and we continue to let him drive it right. It’s not like they weren’t told or we didn’t practice it.”
There was more to this story, though, that will only add to the Mountaineers’ frustration level.
WVU began the game dominant, holding Kansas State (11-4, 1-2) to without a real basket for the first 11 minutes of the first half.
All the Wildcats could muster in that time was a basket off a goaltending call on Beetle Bolden and three free throws.
By that time, West Virginia had built up a 23-7 lead and was rolling toward a 15-point halftime advantage.
“I think we just let lose and played,” Kansas State coach Bruce Weber said. “Obviously, Mike (McGuirl) and Barry stepped up. We kept battling.”
“We had energy in the first half, that was the difference,” added West. “They out-toughed us. We couldn’t guard. We couldn’t guard their guards.”
Brown and McGuirl were the difference in the second half, as Kansas State scored 50 points in the final 18 minutes of the game with Brown and McGuirl combining for 35 of those 50.
In the comeback, Kansas State shot a blistering 62 percent (18 of 29) and was 7 of 11 on 3-pointers in the second half.
It was Xavier’s Sneed 4-point play (a 3-pointer and then a foul shot after getting fouled by West) that first gave K-State a 68-66 lead with 2:30 remaining.
But, it was Brown’s drive to the basket against Jermaine Haley and then somehow getting his shot over Derek Culver that sealed the deal.
“He did that to us the whole second half,” said Haley, who finished with 13 points. “We couldn’t keep him from getting to the rim.”
Brown’s shot banked in for a 70-69 lead, and following a WVU timeout, the Wildcats’ survived a play between Haley and Culver, where Culver, who finished with his second double-double with 17 points and 12 rebounds, got off a shot in the paint that hit the back of the rim and bounced out.
Xavier Sneed got the rebound and was fouled. He made one of two, and with three seconds left, West Virginia’s Jordan McCabe furiously dribbled up the left side of the court, but was unable to get off a shot before the final buzzer.
Kansas State players ran out onto the court to celebrate their first league win of the season, while West Virginia slowly made its way back to the locker room knowing their three conference losses have been by a combined 12 points.
“I got four-year guys and three-year guys and two-year guys who don’t know what they’re doing,” Huggins said. “At the end of the day, I’m the one who is in charge and it falls on my shoulders.”