LAWRENCE, Kansas — Perhaps it was an appropriate way for WVU to fall to Kansas.
There the Mountaineers were, struggling after blowing a 12-point lead, losing by two points.
After a Mountaineer star Jevon Carter miss, teammate Wes Harris got the rebound. And then Dax Miles, who had an otherwise terrific day with 22 points, forced a pass inside that turned into a turnover.
Devonte Graham was fouled. Game.
It might have been appropriate because West Virginia had trouble all evening getting the ball inside. The Mountaineers finished with but 16 points in the paint. Meanwhile, Kansas big man Udoka Azubuike — who starts along with four guards — feasted, scoring 21.
And once again, KU rallied. It did so last season at Allen Fieldhouse. It did so earlier this season in Morgantown. And once again — for the sixth time — WVU left the arena without a win. Also, once again, the Jayhawks are in position to challenge for a Big 12 title.
Yet perhaps the most symbolic moment of the game — certainly in the eyes of Mountaineer coach Bob Huggins — wasn’t WVU’s failed attempt to go inside in his team’s 77-69 Saturday night loss. It was Graham’s free throw.
Before a crowd of 16,300 and an ESPN national TV audience, the officiating crew of John Higgins, James Luckie and Keith Kimble awarded KU 35 free throws, 26 of which were converted. West Virginia, meanwhile, made 1 of 2.
“I’ve been doing this 40 years,” Huggins said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been in a game where we shot two free throws. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a game where the disparity was 35-2. I’ve never been in a game like that.”
It was so frustrating to Huggins that the Mountaineer coach was given two technical fouls and kicked out of the game near the end.
“It’s been building,” Huggins said of the eruption before adding it’s been building all season.
And his words to the team afterward?
“It wasn’t their fault,” he said.
Graham, meanwhile, had another take.
“They fouled a whole lot more than what got called,” said the KU guard.
West Virginia entered the day one game behind second-place Kansas in the Big 12 standings and two behind leader Texas Tech. The Mountaineers are now in a tie with Kansas State for third, although WVU swept the Wildcats this season. The Mountaineers are 8-6 in league play. Overall, they are 19-8. Kansas moved to 21-6 overall and 10-4 in Big 12 play.
WVU allowed KU to rally for wins twice this season and at the “Phog” last season.
“It’s hard,” said Carter, who had 15 points, but on 6-of-17 shooting, including key misses near the game’s end.
Fouls played a key role in the game. Carter fouled out. Starting forward Harris was tagged with two fouls before three minutes were gone in the first half. Esa Ahmad and big man Sagaba Konate were saddled with three. And when Huggins tried to cover with Maciej Bender and Logan Routt, Azubuike thrived.
Kansas turned the ball over just four times in the first half. They finished with but eight against “Press Virginia.” Also, the Jayhawks were getting to the free-throw line — 12 times, converting 8, while the Mountaineers never got a first-half opportunity.
The two teams traded proverbial punches early in the second half until Carter hit a trey at the same time Konate was getting fouled underneath. That led to a bucket underneath by the big man from Mali, giving the Mountaineers a 45-39 lead.
Shortly thereafter, though, Konate picked up his third foul and had to sit. Still, West Virginia extended its lead. Miles bounced a trey in to give the Mountaineers a 50-40 lead. When Kansas tried to rally — mostly by going at Bender or Routt – WVU responded with timely 3-pointers by Miles or Lamont West, who finished with 11.
WVU held its biggest lead of 12 with 10:18 of the second on a Miles trey.
Yet Kansas kept chipping away. Malik Newman hit a big 3 for the Jayhawks and later dropped one of two free throws to close West Virginia’s gap to 61-55. Azubuike continued to dominate, scoring 15 second-half points.
Huggins called a timeout at 2:37, but it didn’t help. Carter tried a drive and was rejected by Azubuike and Ahmad fouled Svi Mykhailiuk on the rebound. The 6-foot-8 KU guard converted two free throws to give Kansas a 68-66 lead with 1:35 left.
Huggins called his last timeout and afterward West missed a trey, but Miles was fouled trying to rebound. He not only missed the front end, but was called for a lane violation.
After Graham missed on the other end, the deciding WVU turnover occurred, leading to the free throws making the score 70-66 with 24 seconds left. Azubuike blocked a Miles shot near game’s end and Newman sealed the deal with a layup with nine seconds left.
The Mountaineers will next play in Waco, Texas, against Baylor at 7 p.m. Tuesday. That game will be televised on ESPN2. Kansas will host Oklahoma on Monday for a 9 p.m. ESPN game before visiting Texas Tech next Saturday. That game, as was the case Saturday at Allen Fieldhouse, will be a “College GameDay” stop.