MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Hot at the outset and shaky at the finish, No. 21 West Virginia barely did enough to survive Kansas State 76-72 on Wednesday night.
The Mountaineers (19-5, 7-4 Big 12) squandered a late 10-point lead with turnovers and missed free throws before regaining their poise in the final minutes to avoid a three-game using streak.
“There might’ve been a thing or two more we could’ve done to try to lose it, but I don’t know what they were,” joked coach Bob Huggins.
Reserve forward Brandon Watkins scored a career-high 14 points before leaving with an undisclosed leg injury and point guard Juwan Staten added 11 points and six assists as the Mountaineers swept the season series. Though Devin Williams finished with only five points on 2-of-8 shooting, the forward put West Virginia ahead 71-69 on a spinning jumper with 1:51 remaining.
“There might’ve been a thing or two more we could’ve done to try to lose it, but I don’t know what they were.” — Bob Huggins
Nino Williams scored 22 points for Kansas State (12-13, 5-7), which dropped its fifth straight despite taking the lead in the final three minutes with a clutch comeback. Trailing 67-57 with 5:27 left, Kansas State rallied with a 12-0 run to pull ahead.
West Virginia’s Nate Adrian tied it at 69-69 on free throws following an offensive rebound. After K-State’s Nino Williams was called for traveling on the opposite end, West Virginia found its Williams in the lane for the go-ahead basket.
“That was the best option I saw,” said Huggins, whose team shot only 28 percent in the second half after making 62 percent in the opening period. “I knew we could get it to him down there.”
Wildcats guard Nigel Johnson missed two free throws and a chance to tie before guard Gary Browne’s free throw put the Mountaineers up 72-69 with 37 seconds to go.
While Kansas State came up dry on two subsequent positions, West Virginia made its final four free throws to seal it.
“I’m proud of our kids, because they battled their butts off,” said K-State coach Bruce Weber. “I was hoping and praying that some good things would happen at the end, but they made the plays and that was the difference.
“It was a good team effort, just not a good team win.”
Guards Jaysean Paige and Jevon Carter contributed 10 points each for the Mountaineers, who aided the Wildcats’ rally with several silly turnovers. That included an inbounds pass by Carter that hit teammate Daxter Miles in the back of the head and was converted into a one-on-three layup by Johnson.
“There probably isn’t anyone happy in our locker room,” Carter said. “We all feel bad about this win. We’ll take it but we know we have to play better.”
“There probably isn’t anyone happy in our locker room. We all feel bad about this win. We’ll take it but we know we have to play better.” — Jevon Carter
Thomas Gipson and reserve guard Justin Edwards scored 14 points each for the Wildcats, who lost despite shooting 57 percent from the field.
West Virginia, the second-worst shooting team in the Big 12, enjoyed a torrid start by making its first seven shots from the field. That contributed to a 46-35 halftime lead.
Ten players scored in the opening half for the Mountaineers, including Watkins, who surpassed his season high with eight points in his first eight minutes of action.
During one chaotic sequence, Watkins dunked after collecting a loose ball off his own missed free throw. He added a breakaway dunk moments later, part of an 11-2 run that built the lead to 46-33.
Watkins’ status unknown: Huggins wasn’t sure about the extent of Watkins’ injury. The sophomore wasn’t on the bench after subbing out with 5:18 left.
“We won’t know until tomorrow,” Huggins said. “There’s a possibility he’s hurt.”
Missing Wildcats: Kansas State played its third consecutive game without suspended leading scorer Marcus Foster (14 points per game) and reserve Malek Harris.
The lack of depth proved huge as the Wildcats’ bench was outscored 47-19 by West Virginia.
Free-throw woes: West Virginia was 9-of-19 at the foul line in the second half, including three straight misses by Paige after being fouled on a 3-pointer and then four straight misses by Staten.
“I take all responsibility for that,” said Staten who was 5-of-10 and dipped to 70 percent this season. “I make 100 free throws every day (at practice). They’ll eventually start falling.”
Both teams finished 20-of-33 on free throws overall.