AUSTIN, Texas — Bob Huggins loves the yarns about his gritty yesteryear teams grinding out tough victories. His current West Virginia squad hadn’t measured up to that standard.
Until Wednesday night.
Down 10 in the final 3 1/2 minutes at Texas, the Mountaineers kept hearing their coach repeat “find a way” in a game where they could hardly find the rim. The mantra, adopted by Huggins’ teams at Cincinnati, paid off for West Virginia, which overcame 30-percent shooting and staged a 13-0 run late in regulation before pulling out a 57-53 win in overtime.
Aaric Murray had 12 points and 10 rebounds for West Virginia (8-6, 1-1), and Kevin Noreen, making only his second start of the season, added 13 boards and a key 3-pointer that sparked WVU’s rally.
“That 3 gave us a big lift,” Huggins said, “but Kevin also got 13 rebounds, and that’s pretty good for a guy that can’t jump over a phone book.”
The Mountaineers appeared ready to phone this one in after a 24-21 halftime deficit ballooned into a 13-point hole midway through the second half. But Huggins kept preaching his find-a-way philosophy and WVU responded by winning on a night when its offensive execution, for the most part, was even worse than its abysmal norm.
“Hopefully this kind of gets us back to being my team,” Huggins said. “They really weren’t my team before, because we didn’t compete the way we needed to compete. I thought they really competed hard today.”
Said dejected Texas coach Rick Barnes: “When it was winning time, West Virginia wanted the game more than we did. Nothing hurts more than seeing your opponent want it more than you.”
West Virginia, which blew a 12-point second-half lead in its Big 12 home opener to Oklahoma on Saturday, was on the good end of the comeback this time, despite suffering through a midgame stretch in which it missed 18 of 20 shots.
Texas (8-7, 0-2) enjoyed its biggest cushion at 42-29 with 8:37 to go, displaying why it leads the nation in field-goal percentage defense. The margin was still a seemingly comfortable 47-37 before Noreen buried a 3 from the corner with 3:14 left — WVU’s first long-distance make after going 0-for-14.
“I didn’t realize we were shooting that poorly,” Noreen said. “I was open and the shot clock was winding down, so I figured why not take it.
“Little did I know it would have help us get on a roll.”
“When it was winning time, West Virginia wanted the game more than we did. Nothing hurts more than seeing your opponent want it more than you.” — Texas coach Rick Barnes
Next came Murray’s basket off an inbounds pass, and then Hinds (who had started 0-of-6 from 3-point range) hit WVU’s second 3-pointer to make the gap 47-45 with 1:52 left.
With the somber crowd of 6,267 finally stirring in hopes of coaxing Texas to the finish line, the Longhorns only continued to buckle. Javan Felix’s soft pass was stolen by Gary Browne near midcourt, leading to the game-tying layup and a foul. Though Browne missed the and-1 free throw, WVU regained possession with 51 seconds left after a UT airball led to a shot-clock violation.
Unable to hold for the last shot but patiently using most of the possession clock, WVU worked the ball around the perimeter before Eron Harris made the Mountaineers’ third straight 3-pointer with 16 seconds left for a 50-47 lead.
Texas rushed into the forecourt where point guard Javan Felix missed a runner and the ball caromed out of bounds with 5.7 seconds left. After a timeout, Texas forward Jonathan Holmes ran free to the near corner off an inbounds screen and made the tying 3 with 3 seconds left as two WVU defenders charged toward him.
Browne, WVU’s reserve point guard who played 31 minutes with starter Juwan Staten benched in the second half, drove back downcourt only to put up an errant 15-footer after the clock expired.
In the first 43 seconds of overtime, Hinds and Murray combined to miss four free throws before Texas got a outback dunk by Prince Ibeh. Yet West Virginia persevered, with Murray getting his own stickback before Browne’s two free throws put WVU up for good at 54-52 with 3:14 left.
On the other end, UT’s best foul shooter Sheldon McClellan missed a one-and-one, which the Longhorns rebounded and fed to McClellan in the corner, where he missed a wide-open 3.
That’s when the Mountaineers rebounded and began a marathon possession at the 2:40 mark. It ended 1:46 later after four missed shots and three offensive rebounds — the home crowd groaning with each new WVU rebound and reset. Still, it produced no points, and when Ibeh made 1-of-2 free throws, UT trailed 54-53 inside of a minute.
Again, WVU worked the clock, and again Harris launched from 3. It was no good but Dominique Rutledge tracked down the miss — the Mountaineers’ 17th offensive rebound of the game — and fed outside to Browne, who was fouled with 15 seconds left.
Browne made one free throw for a 55-53 lead, Texas angled to extend the game again. But Murray stole Ioannis Papapetrou’s pass in the lane, got fouled and hit two free throws to seal it.
“West Virginia took it,” Barnes said. “It was there for the taking and they took it.”
Brown had nine points and five rebounds for WVU, while Deniz Kilicli came off the bench to contribute eight points before fouling out.
Holmes led Texas with 12 points and nine rebounds. Felix had 11 points and four assists, but also three of the Longhorns’ 14 turnovers.
STATEN IN THE DOGHOUSE
The Mountaineers curiously played the entire second half without Staten — the team leader in points and minutes this season. Huggins said he decided at half to bench the sophomore point guard for not playing within the system, a surprise considering that there had been no public signs of a rift previously.
“It’s my team — it’s not his,” Huggins said. “We talk about being on the same page? Well, I wrote the book. He’s going to be on the same page as everybody else or he’s going to continue sitting over there. That may be too blunt, but it’s honest.”
OFF THE MARK
McClellan, who came in averaging 15 points per game, wound up with nine points on 2-of-13 shooting. He also made just 5-of-10 at the foul line, well off his usual 84-percent clip. Texas was 11-of-25 overall at the foul line.
Barnes explained McClellan’s struggles as “the difference in being a role player and a person that people game plan for.” And West Virginia clearly targeted him with defense that was clingy and, at times, bruising.
Said McClellan: “They were pretty physical, but it’s not an excuse. I’ve still got to make plays for my team because they’re looking for me to score the ball. I just didn’t make enough plays.”
WVU was in danger of ending its 436 consecutive-games streak with a 3-pointer — a string dating back to the Nov. 27, 1999, game against Robert Morris.
Then, in the final 3:14 of regulation, the Mountaineers made three consecutive treys, fueling the comeback.
In overtime, WVU missed three more from long distance, resulting in one of the most satisfying 3-of-20 long-range shooting night Huggins ever experienced. West Virginia’s 45-39 rebounding edge made it bearable.
“We’re going to miss shots,” he said. “We’ve got to figure out ways to get it back.”