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Column: Mountaineers made Kansas sweat for this coronation


LAWRENCE, Kan. — On the scent of an astonishing and unexpected upset, West Virginia became too self-aware, as if realizing that it wasn’t supposed to be good enough to finish off Kansas.

A baseball pass thrown 94 feet to no one. Three missed free throws in the final 40 seconds of regulation. A foul on a handoff 28 feet from the basket that sent the No. 9 Jayhawks to the line for the tying free throws.

Compounding mistakes that made No. 20 West Virginia’s eight-point lead evaporate in the final 1:55, they afforded Kansas a chance at overtime, where the the aura of invincibility returned and the Jayhawks emerged 76-69.

As Kansas enjoyed some postgame net-cutting—the spoils of an 11th consecutive Big 12 title—West Virginia swallowed hard over a missed opportunity no one figured they would have when the night began.

“The youngness got to us,” explained freshman Daxter Miles, whose season-high 23 points bewildered the Kansas scouting report. He also bewildered himself by attempting a court-long pass to a teammate who didn’t break deep, a turnover that gave Kansas possession down 57-51 in the final two minutes.

“That pass will haunt me, man” he said.

But in fairness to Miles, the haunt list grew long once Kansas began wiping away the 40-22 cushion WVU built late in the first half. Even with Perry Ellis sidelined for the second half—mitigating the advantage of WVU missing its starting backcourt—every one in hallowed Allen Fieldhouse figured the Jayhawks would eventually make their run, or at least get a rebound. West Virginia was left wishing it hadn’t helped the process.

“We deserved to win the game, we really did,” said Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins. “We just didn’t do enough at the end. There were some things that happened that are just hard to explain.”

For example:

• Jaysean Paige rushed a 3-point airball in transition with 5 minutes left and the lead at nine points. How crucial might a 20-second possession have been to slowing the comeback?

• Jevon Carter, the team’s best foul shooter at nearly 80 percent, made only 2-of-4 free throws in the waning moments, contributing to the team’s dreadful 16-of-28 performance.

• West Virginia’s second-half offensive efficiency turned brutal—six baskets and nine turnovers and six straight misses to end regulation.

• With 11 seconds left and Kansas trying to set up a tying play, Tarik Phillip made it easy by fouling Devonte Graham.

Such miscues could be explained by the absences of Juwan Staten and Gary Browne, yet Huggins groused loudly when the injury topic arose.

“I’m tired of talking about those guys—they’ll play when they think they can play,” he said. “Our guys just busted their ass and really should have won a game when no one gave them a chance. I think we probably showed tonight we’re OK. We’re going to be fine.”

Bill Self certainly thought so, paying tribute to West Virginia as “the scrappiest team in America.” He said matter-of-factly, “Nobody plays as hard as they do.”

Hard enough they nearly conquered The Phog. Nearly swept the Jayhawks and crushed their 24-game home streak. Nearly produced a win to be reminisced by Mountaineer Nation decades along.

Instead of a marvelous memory, however, Huggins and his scrappy crew had to settle for a compliment, and being privy to another Kansas coronation.

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