LUBBOCK, Texas — The opponents’ jerseys displayed “Tech” but Eron Harris advised teammates to make believe they saw “Kansas.”
Apparently the freshman’s skillset includes deep range and mind tricks.
Whatever sort of twisted psychology the Mountaineers employed Saturday afternoon, it helped them accomplish what most Big 12 teams should this season: Beat Texas Tech.
Devoid of big-time talent, destitute of experience and forced to rebuild from the aftermath of Hurricane Gillispie, the Red Raiders are, for now, the equivalent of scrimmage fodder — even for an inconsistent bunch like West Virginia. And perhaps that’s why Harris, seemingly wise beyond his rookie status, sensed his crew might be not be appropriately energized for its trip to West Texas.
“I told my team to play just like we’re playing Kansas,” he said. “Every game we’ve got to bring it like we’re playing Kansas,” Harris said.
And indeed, they gave it the ol’ Kansas try, with one modification — they won. Instead of fudging up the last few minutes as they did in Monday’s spirited loss to the Jayhawks, this time the Mountaineers closed with authority, stretching a tight game into a 77-61 final.
“If we can make a run … get to 17, 18 wins and play well in the conference tournament, then we’re going to have a chance. It’s not over. Obviously we’re a long, long way right now, but if we get on a run …” — Bob Huggins
As the clock ticked beneath six minutes, Texas Tech had the ball, the momentum of back-to-back baskets on its side and a chance to trim WVU’s 59-55 lead. The next four Red Raiders possessions ended thusly:
• TURNOVER: Dusty Hannahs was called for an up-and-down travel after Juwan Staten lunged to defend his 3-point try.
• TURNOVER: Josh Gray’s interior pass was deflected by Dominique Rutledge.
• TURNOVER: Gray’s interior dish was deflected by Gary Browne.
• TURNOVER: Out of a timeout, Toddrick Gotcher lost the ball in the lane to Browne.
While Tech turned sloppy, West Virginia launched into precision offense, making four consecutive baskets, including 3s by Harris and Browne off ball-screens and a Staten drive-and-dish to Rutledge for a layup. All told, in the final 5:32, the Mountaineers made 7-of-8 shots from the floor and 2-of-2 free throws. What would Bob Huggins have given for that kind of finish against Oklahoma, or K-State or Kansas.
Said Staten of that crisp closing stretch: “We executed better than we have all season on offense. Every shot that we planned on getting, we got. We just played like we could play.”
Proof that WVU’s sharp finish certainly made it easier to stomach 18 turnovers and some soft second-half rebounding, Huggins was back on his bracketology platform, claiming the Mountaineers — the 10-11 Mountaineers — still can see beyond the NIT.
“If we can make a run … get to 17, 18 wins and play well in the conference tournament, then we’re going to have a chance,” Huggins said. “It’s not over. Obviously we’re a long, long way right now, but if we get on a run …”
Bless that Huggins, hungry to keep his team’s March Madness lifeline intact even though WVU is 0-8 against the RPI top 130. He speaks of runs when the Mountaineers haven’t won consecutive games since December.
Saturday was a start. Yet here’s where the enthusiasm must be tempered a smidgen — OK, a lot — because after all, this was Texas Tech, and not Kansas (regardless of what Harris’ motivational ploy would have us see). This wasn’t the No. 2 RPI team, but rather, No. 205.
Still, 16-point conference road victories warrant kudos, even in Lubbock. Recall that Kansas won here by only 14, and Iowa State couldn’t win here at all.
“Every win that we have —no matter who it is — feels good,” said Browne. “It’s like medicine.”
Of which this West Virginia team needs several more doses.