ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla called West Virginia’s 87-84 win at Oklahoma State on Monday, a game in which the 14th-ranked Mountaineers rallied from a 19-point second-half deficit, a “comeback for the ages.”
Maybe more accurately it was a comeback for a team coming of age.
It’s difficult to avoid hyperbole here in the early hours of Tuesday morning with one of the most remarkable late-game surges in recent Mountaineer memory still fresh on my mind.
But man, it just feels like we witnessed something incredibly important, doesn’t it?
Of course, the importance of such a win in the long term can only be measured with the passage of time, often not until the end of the season. But here’s what we saw late Monday night in Stillwater, Oklahoma:
n We saw a team with its back to the wall, down double digits on the road for the second time in three days, just a few days clear of losing its only McDonald’s All-American and low-post anchor Oscar Tshiebwe, who left the program last Thursday.
n Junior college transfer point guard Kedrian Johnson likely cemented himself into the rotation, scoring nine points to go with five assists in 25 minutes and providing arguably his most important contributions on the defensive side. In arguably the most crucial exchange of the closing moments, Johnson turned the ball over but responded by taking a charge from Oklahoma State star freshman Cade Cunningham with 31 seconds to go. It gave the Mountaineers the ball back with a two-point lead, gave Cunningham his fifth and final foul and was instrumental in giving WVU the win.
n Starting point guard Miles “Deuce” McBride took over in crunch time, just as you’d hope a point guard would, scoring 12 points in the final 3:50, including back-to-back 3s to turn a two-point deficit into a four-point lead with 2:33 remaining.
n Junior Derek Culver, WVU’s lone remaining experienced big after Tshiebwe’s departure and a season-ending injury to freshman Isaiah Cottrell last week, responded to likely his worst game of the season (two points, six rebounds, seven turnovers against Oklahoma) with likely his best, going for 22 points and 19 rebounds in 36 physical, grueling minutes.
n Taz Sherman continues to be one of if not the best sixth man in the Big 12 Conference and followed up a 19-point performance against the Sooners with 20 more in the win over the Cowboys.
n Maybe most importantly, I think we saw a team that proved through grit and guile that it will find a way to overcome the loss of a former five-star recruit and a preseason first-team All-Big 12 selection.
That doesn’t mean this team is going to win a national championship. It doesn’t mean it’s going to win a Big 12 championship either.
But at the very least, it’s a team that seems united, maybe for the first time all season. It’s a team that has gone through the COVID-19 pandemic and the cancellation of tournament basketball a year ago and now the sudden departure of one of its own. Just maybe, all of that has made those that remained closer, more focused, tougher and more determined.
“I feel like me and my teammates are doing a pretty good job adjusting on the fly,” Culver said. “This is a very big morale booster honestly because we’ve been dealing with things — certain dismissals of some people and things like that — but I’ll go to war 110% every single day with the guys I got in that locker room and I know they’ll do the same thing for me.”
One of the most consistent bits of comic relief I get in life is checking in on social media during WVU games and inevitably seeing certain fans calling for coach Bob Huggins’ head. Really? Who are you going to hire that’s going to make you feel better?
Don’t get me wrong, things aren’t perfect. Huggins himself said it would be hard to imagine his team playing worse defensively than it has the last two games. Persistent shooting woes, consistently slow starts, foul-line struggles … if you want to throw that on Huggins, fine. He’d probably be fine with that, too.
But to adjust that quickly to the loss of Tshiebwe, arguably the focal point of the offense for the last two seasons, and to completely change personnel philosophies and offensive and defensive strategies on the fly in the thick of play in debatably the toughest league in the country?
Just watch the last five games. There have been full-court pressures, zone defenses and rotation adjustments, all things that have changed since the beginning of the year. You can literally see Huggins throwing everything against the wall to see what sticks. And maybe it’s starting to stick.
So yeah, this team is certainly a work in progress, but at least progress is what it’s making.