As a 10-point West Virginia lead was whittled away in the final two minutes at Iowa State, Mountaineer fans may have been experiencing a “here we go again” moment watching a team that was just shy of two months without a road win.
Mountaineer players were not in the same worrisome boat.
Freshman point guard Miles McBride calmly drained four straight free throws in the final 17 seconds, providing the final margin of a much-needed 77-71 win at Hilton Coliseum.
McBride tied Derek Culver with a team-high 17 points.
“Like most freshmen, he’s been a little bit up-and-down,” said West Virginia coach Bob Huggins. “He has to continue to work to get more consistent. But he was very good today.”
West Virginia snapped both a three-game losing streak and a six-game road drought. The Mountaineers (20-10, 8-9 Big 12) had not won on the road since beating Oklahoma State on Jan. 6, which was the second game on the conference schedule.
It wasn’t easy, as one would expect with a team that clearly lost its confidence in mid-February.
West Virginia came out blazing, shooting 56 percent from the field in the first half to open up a 44-31 halftime lead.
However, WVU’s offense hit its seemingly unavoidable rut to start the second half. The Mountaineers managed just one shot in their first four possessions, setting the tone for a major Cyclones rally.
Prentiss Nixon’s three-pointer with 12 minutes left put Iowa State up 51-48, capping a 20-4 Cyclones run. But rather than collapsing for their seventh defeat in eight games, the Mountaineers provided a counterpunch of their own behind McBride and fellow freshman Oscar Tshiebwe.
McBride (11) and Tshiebwe (9) combined for 20 of West Virginia’s 33 second-half points. Most importantly, neither missed a free throw in the process. McBride hit all six of his attempts, while Tshiebwe made all five of his free throws.
WVU was an unlikely 18-for-21 (86 percent) from the line in the second half. The Mountaineers are just a 64-percent team at the line this season, ranking 334th nationally out of 351 teams.
“We let it slip away a little bit in the second half, but I think we did grow up a little bit. I think if this was two or three weeks ago we would not have come back after we fell behind,” WVU coach Bob Huggins said in his postgame radio interview. “It was a good team effort from a lot of different guys. We were a little tougher today than what we have been.”
Culver scored 14 of his 17 points in the first half, helping West Virginia open up its sizable halftime advantage.
However, Culver didn’t have a shot attempt for the first 14 minutes of the second half as the Cyclones (12-18, 5-12) worked their way into the lead.
Things bounced back-and-forth for the middle portion of the second half when West Virginia finally appeared to grab complete control. Jermaine Haley’s fast-break layup off a Gabe Osabuohien steal capped a 10-0 WVU run that put the Mountaineers up 70-60 with 2:47 remaining.
But as was the case after halftime, the Cyclones weren’t dead yet.
Iowa State cut the margin to 73-70 on Tre Jackson’s three with 47 seconds left, and had a chance to get it to one when Rasir Bolton went to the line with 23 seconds to go. But Bolton split the free throws, bringing him to 10 of 11 in the game.
The lone miss allowed McBride to make it a two-possession game when he was fouled with 16.9 seconds left. McBride made two more free throws after Jackson airballed a three with 7.5 seconds left, allowing West Virginia to finally seal the deal on a much-needed victory.
By the numbers
Culver and Tshiebwe finished with nine rebounds each. All five of Tshiebwe’s second-half rebounds were offensive… Bolton had a game-high 21 points, and Nixon was 5-for-7 from three-point range in scoring 19… WVU didn’t make a field goal in the final 2:47 of the game, but still scored seven points… West Virginia dominated bench scoring by a 35-2 margin… The Mountaineers finished with only 10 turnovers despite committing three on the first four possessions of the second half.
Saturday marks the home finale for the Mountaineers, who host No. 4 Baylor. The Bears need a win and a Kansas loss to earn a share of their first regular-season conference championship since 1950.