KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Esa Ahmad sank the go-ahead free throw with 20 seconds left and No. 11 West Virginia overcame 27-percent shooting during a 51-50 comeback win against Kansas State in the Big 12 tournament semifinals.
Tarik Phillip added 13 points, all in the second half, when the Mountaineers (26-7) rallied from 12 down to earn a championship showdown against Iowa State on Saturday.
“We’re a resilient team,” said Phillip whose 3-pointer tied the game at 50-50 with 1:45 left. Then he made an equally huge play on the opposite end, outwrestling two K-State big men for a defensive rebound before calling timeout from the floor at 1:05.
“I liked the rebound better than the 3, because I dove on it. That’s the style we play.”
There wasn’t much stylish about the Mountaineers’ 16-point first half, though their grittiness may be long-celebrated should they earn a Big 12 title.
In Ahmad’s first productive game since suffering a back injury three weeks ago, the forward finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds, including two offensive boards that extended the Mountaineers’ final possession. He was fouled by DJ Johnson on the last rebound and made the second of two free throws,
“It’s just about who wanted it more,” Ahmad said. “The first rebound kind of bounced my way, and the second one I went for it and they called a foul for me.”
West Virginia owned the rebounding edge 44-35 and 16-5 on the offensive end.
Kansas State coach Bruce Weber termed the loss “a heartbreaker for us” and described the rebounding foul on Johnson “the difference-maker in the game.”
Wesley Iwundu scored 13 to lead Kansas State (20-13) but didn’t touch the ball in the final 10 seconds when Kamau Stokes was trapped by the taller Ahmad and forced up an off-balance 3 from the wing. Time expired before Dean Wade grabbed the twice-tipped rebound
“(West Virginia) did a good job of jamming it up,” said Weber, who thought Iwundu had a look on the opposite side. “Wes was open on the skip and maybe DJ diving into the basket, but they did a good job of jamming it up.”
The Wildcats led 32-20 with 16 minutes left before going cold and making only four baskets over the final 13 minutes after West Virginia switched to a 1-3-1 zone.
“The zone stops penetration,” said WVU coach Bob Huggins. “When you put three guys across the foul line you should be able to stop it. I wanted to make them shoot it from the perimeter.”
Mountaineers point guard Jevon Carter shot 1-of-12 for five points but contributed seven rebounds and six assists.
“We never feel like we’re down and out,” Carter said. “We never were going to put our heads down and think this next play is the home-run play. We were going to take it possession-by-possession.”
Scoreless for the opening 5 minutes, the Mountaineers missed their first seven shots before Adrian spun in a basket from the low post. They later suffered through another 5:25 drought when K-State reeled off 11 unanswered to lead 18-8.
West Virginia shot 19 percent (6-of-32) as it went to the half trailing 25-16.
“That’s pretty miserable,” Adrian said, “but to only be down by nine when you score 16 isn’t too bad.”
Its top quartet of guards — Carter, Phillip, Daxter Miles and Teyvon Myers — combined to start 0-of-17 until Phillip’s 3 from the wing with 15:26 left.
West Virginia, which didn’t attempt a free throw until the 17:27 mark of the second half, started attacking the basket to jumpstart the offense.
“We were taking ill-advised shots,” Phillip said. “We shot 17 3s in the first half — that’s not really us. So we were saying, ‘Get the ball to the rim, get the ball to the rim’ and that’s what we did.
“Once we started driving it, we got other open shots.”
From 4-of-17 on 3s in the first half to 5-of-11 afterward, West Virginia never panicked.
“We won this game with guts.” said assistant Larry Harrison. “We’ve given games away like this, but we haven’t won many where we had to grind it out, knowing that our offense wasn’t flowing.
“We didn’t score a lot but we scored enough.”