MORGANTOWN — Injuries to star guard Cade Cunningham and fellow starter Isaac Likekele left No. 17 Oklahoma State short-handed on Saturday.
With a No. 2 seed in next week’s Big 12 Conference tournament, the 900th win in the career of West Virginia coach Bob Huggins and the 1,000th point in the career of junior forward Derek Culver hanging in the balance, the table seemed to be set for a hopeful, COVID-guideline-capped crowd of 2,800 at the WVU Coliseum.
But in this year, with this Mountaineer team and in WVU’s home building, which has seemed more like a house of horrors this season, the Cowboys pulled the rug out from under the Mountaineers.
Sophomore guard Avery Anderson scored 11 of his game-high 31 points in the final 4:03 and Oklahoma State made 5 of its last 6 shots as the Cowboys held off WVU 85-80, stunning the No. 6 Mountaineers and sending the celebration-ready West Virginia faithful slumping toward the exits.
With West Virginia’s loss, Kansas locked up the league’s No. 2 seed in next week’s Big 12 tournament. A loss by Texas to TCU on Sunday would give the Mountaineers a No. 3 seed while a Longhorns win saddles WVU with the No. 4.
On Senior Day, on a day when Culver became the 54th Mountaineer to eclipse the 1,000-point barrier and on an afternoon when Huggins, one of West Virginia’s proudest native sons, had a chance to join the rarest of basketball coaching elite in the season finale of the Coliseum’s 50th season, it all just went inexplicably wrong.
“We were more trying to play for the seniors, play for Huggs, but obviously we let our seniors and Huggs down with this one, that’s on us,” WVU point guard Miles “Deuce” McBride said. “Now games are even more important, but nothing we can do about this one now.”
Huggins is vying to become just the sixth Division I coach to reach 900 wins and would’ve tied still-active North Carolina coach Roy Williams temporarily in victories. A ceremony was in the works for the postgame, complete with a dedication video. Instead, all that remains is a game video that tells the all-too-familiar tale of a Mountaineer defense that still cannot find stops when it needs them.
The Cowboys (18-7 overall, 11-7 Big 12) shot a blistering 64.3% in the second half and 57.9% for the game while piling up 50 points in the paint. Along the way, Oklahoma State outrebounded WVU 38-29.
Already without two starters — including Cunningham, the likely No. 1 overall pick in this year’s NBA draft — the Cowboys also withstood the losses of Matthew-Alexander Moncrieffe and sophomore forward Bernard Kouma, who both fouled out in the second half. Moncrieffe contributed 18 points with Kouma adding six points and 10 rebounds.
But seemingly no matter who was in for the Cowboys, straight-line drives and easy buckets around the rim ensued, and it was nothing new to Huggins or WVU players.
“We can’t guard, I’ve told you guys that, and then I get crucified for telling the truth,” Huggins said. “We can’t guard, we don’t guard. We tried to play some matchup [zone] to kind of camouflage the fact that we can’t guard, and it will work for a while — of course everybody watches film like we do — and so they work against the matchup.”
The Mountaineers (18-8, 11-6) led 39-34 at the half but a 9-0 run for Oklahoma State from 16:42 to 13:53 left in the second half gave the Cowboys a 52-48 lead. From there the game seesawed, with WVU mostly playing catchup until a pair of free throws from Kedrian Johnson with 4:12 remaining gave the Mountaineers a 71-70 advantage. Back-to-back layups from Anderson and Kouma with 3:26 and 2:44 to go gave the Cowboys the lead back for good at 76-73.
Masked in the defensive struggles was the fact that the Mountaineers also struggled to hit shots for the most part, shooting just 41.7% from the floor and 20.8% from 3-point range, including hitting just one triple in the second half. In the end, WVU couldn’t find enough answers on either side down the stretch, culminating in a turnover with 11 seconds to go on an attempted post pass from McBride to Culver with the Mountaineers trailing by three at 83-80. It led to two more Anderson free throws, and that accounted for the final score.
It was the third game in five days for West Virginia and its fourth in eight days, all of which came at the Coliseum. Now the Mountaineers will get a few days off before playing in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 tournament on Thursday.
The stretch has been grueling, but is only a precursor of what’s to come in conference and national tournaments, a fact not lost on Huggins.
“We’re in trouble if that’s the case — we’ll be home early,” Huggins said when asked if the recent stretch was a factor in Saturday’s loss. “If we can’t handle getting ready for two games in three days then we’ll be home early [in the NCAA Tournament] too. We had no bounce. We had zero bounce. And it was that way from the beginning, and what do you do? I kept saying, ‘Fellas, we’ve got to play man, we’ve got to play, we have no bounce.’ Didn’t do any good.”
Senior Taz Sherman led the Mountaineers with 20 points, with 14 of those coming in the first half. Culver finished with 14, McBride with 12 and Emmitt Matthews added 11.
Kalib Boone added 12 points for Oklahoma State and Keylan Boone chipped in 11. It was the sixth win in the last seven games for the Cowboys.