KANSAS CITY, Mo. — West Virginia went from cellar to Cinderella on Thursday. Freshman forward Emmitt Matthews made sure of that.
He threw his body around like a pro wrestler just to snare a rebound, while holding the Big 12’s top player in Jarrett Culver in check for about 25 minutes. And, oh by the way, the kid from Tacoma, Wash., also poured in a career-high 28 points in leading the Mountaineers to a 79-74 upset of second-seeded Texas Tech, at the Sprint Center.
“There were times back in November he probably would have fell on his face going after some of those rebounds, but that shows you how far he’s come,” guard Jordan McCabe said of Matthews. “What he did tonight, we always knew he had that ability. He was great. He’s really picked up his role and a lot of confidence and he’s been one of our best players over the last few games.”
The Mountaineers (14-19), too, have been better than advertised in knocking off Oklahoma and the Red Raiders to become the first 10th seed to reach the Big 12 semifinals since the conference shrank to 10 members in 2011.
WVU will play third-seeded Kansas in Friday’s semifinals, at 9:30 p.m. The Jayhawks beat Texas 65-57 in the last quarterfinal Thursday night.
It’s the fourth straight season the Mountaineers have made it this far in the tournament, but this is the most unexpected of trips after finishing in last place during a regular season that saw WVU lose four starters to injuries and dismissals.
Now, the Mountaineers are two victories shy from what would be an improbable NCAA tournament bid.
“We’re playing to get into the NCAA tournament is what we’re doing,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said. “We had a meeting. We sat down and talked about it and this is our chance. Two down, two to go.”
This one belongs to Matthews, who had 15 points by halftime and was creating all kinds of confusion for the Red Raiders (26-6).
At one point during a Texas Tech timeout, coach Chris Beard was heard yelling, “He’s 18-years old and he’s kicking your [butt].”
After the game:
“The big thing is offensive rebounds,” Beard said. “He created a lot of offense for himself by getting second-chance points. He’s a talented guy.”
And just maybe the Mountaineers are a young team growing up.
Given numerous chances to fold or back down under the Big 12’s top defense and the player of the year in Culver, the Mountaineers instead kept their wits about them and came up with the right answers.
Matthews and his six offensive rebounds were some of them. His cuts through the lane that led to a timely lay-up and an emphatic slam dunk over Texas Tech forward Tariq Owens were others and his two 3-pointers didn’t hurt matters.
“I’m not sure where I was on their scouting report and honestly I don’t care,” Matthews said. “I just come out and play the game as hard as I can. Some nights, I may have what I did tonight. Some nights, I may only get a few rebounds. For me, I just do whatever I can for this team.”
And even with all of that, Texas Tech grabbed a short lead when Culver scored in transition for a 69-68 lead with 2:06 left, but it was short lived, as Derek Culver hit two free throws 30 seconds later that gave the Mountaineers the lead for good.
The final moment saw Matthews guarding Jarrett Culver, like he had for most of the game, and while Culver got hot late to finish with 26 points and 10 rebounds, his 3-point attempt with 8.8 seconds left hit off the back of the rim and fell right into Matthews’ hands for his eighth rebound of the game. Culver’s shot could have tied it at 74.
“I thought it looked good,” Matthews said of the shot. “He has an all-around game. He can drive it and dunk on you. He’s a great athlete. For me to go out and keep up with him, that taught me a lot about myself.”
Matthews was fouled and sank two free throws for the final score, capping a night when the Mountaineers went 20-of-22 from the line.
Derek Culver struggled shooting from the field, — going 1-for-8 — but led the Mountaineers with 13 rebounds. WVU dominated on the boards 44-30.
McCabe added 13 points and eight assists, while Jermaine Haley and Lamont West combined for 21 points and 10 rebounds.
“They believe in what we’re doing,” Huggins said about his reduced roster. “They’re incredibly coachable. They believe we can win. It seems like every game somebody different steps up, like Emmitt today.”