Bruce Weber promised his team “a bar room fight” and then realized he undersold the prediction.
Marcus Foster, fatigued by playing 30 minutes that felt like 130, called the physicality unlike any he’d experienced: “One punch was being thrown and another punch was being thrown back.”
Lots of fighting words flowed from the Kansas State side Tuesday night after a tougher, grittier West Virginia team strangled all the flow from a 65-59 road victory.
Spout all the snark you want about James Naismith rolling over in his grave, but Naismith won only 55 games coaching his invention. Bob Huggins just claimed No. 757.
And his current collection of scrappers just claimed their 17th win on Jan. 27, which matches the season total from a year ago. These Mountaineers may not have the shot-makers to breathe Final Four air, but neither are they destined for the NIT bargain bin.
“They know they don’t shoot it very well and they don’t pass it very well, but they know they’re going to play really, really hard,” Huggins said.
“I would take this over watching those guys make shots a year ago and not guard anybody. Look at the difference in what these guys have accomplished.”
It has been interesting to watch opponents endure their first taste of West Virginia’s pressing tenacity. K-State promptly revealed that it lacked the skill and will to exploit it. Three five-second violations on inbound passes, another closely-guarded five-second call, one 10-second violation and another 10-count narrowly avoided by a Weber sideline timeout.
The Mountaineers again paid a price with 28 fouls—and heard Weber categorize their bumping, clutching style as creating “bad basketball.” But K-State’s coach also looked inward, feeling his team never resolved to overcome the constant contact.
“That is how they play. They play aggressive and foul every possession. You have to play strong and deal with it.” — Kansas State Bruce Weber on WVU’s pressure
“That is how they play. They play aggressive and foul every possession,” said Weber, who received a first-half technical. “You have to play strong and deal with it.”
Huggins actually called it the best-officiated game of the season, saying “they let us play” despite a flurry of whistles. The Wildcats finished with 26 fouls, putting WVU on the line seven times in the final 1:23.
Kansas State, which had been 8-0 when attempting 25 free throws, shot a season-high 35 this time but to little avail. Only 20 of those went in, the surest indicator of tired legs.
“(Assistant coach) Erik Martin kept saying ‘They’re tired, they’re tired, they’re tired,’ and they were,” Huggins said. “The pressure does that.”
As WVU led 42-40, a deflection in the K-State backcourt ended with Devin Williams diving headfirst to tap the ball toward Jaysean Paige for a dunk. The Wildcats never pulled within one possession again.
“The big fella diving for the ball to get us a layup, that might have been the play of the game,” Huggins said. “Their crowd had sort of gotten into it.”
With 36-percent shooting, however, Kansas State couldn’t elevate the sellout crowd.
Foster, blessed with one of the smoothest 3-point strokes in the conference, looked uncomfortable sinking 2-of-8 from deep. His two that actually went in were miracles of physics: A forced shot over Gary Browne’s chest-to-chest defense in the first half and an off-balance 25-foot heave during the final minute.
By night’s merciful end, Foster had a career-worst six turnovers. Scoring 15 points never extracted such a toll.
“It was something—it was a fight the whole game,” he said. “I have never played in a game like that before.”
After beating six consecutive ranked visitors at Bramlage Coliseum, including Baylor and Oklahoma State during the past 11 days, K-State couldn’t replicate its home magic. That afforded West Virginia a prime opportunity to gain ground in the standings.
“There’s a lot of teams who are going to come in here and lose,” said Huggins, knowing full well not many will come in with the same ferocity.