MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Two years after Dustin Hogue’s chest-kick, it was time for Georges Niang’s cup-check.
When chippiness dipped below the belt Monday night, you sensed Iowa State was too agitated to focus on basketball plays. That it happened to be a congenial dude like Niang applying the sneaky tap to Tarik Philip’s undercarriage further proved that West Virginia, on the right night, can annoy any opponent into out-of-character retaliation.
On top of being a finalist for the Wooden and Naismith awards, Niang could be the Big 12’s poster boy for sportsmanship. Yet the second-half replay from a baseline camera was irrefutable.
“He hit me in my private area,” Phillip said. “I guess he thought it was funny or something.
“I didn’t think it was funny, though. I usually would’ve reacted, but teammates and coaches tell us all the time to keep our heads.”
Phillip is overtly mouthy, of course, a trash-talking tornado who springs off the bench spewing words fast enough to make a stenographer type “I quit.” Phillip has much to crow about these days considering his steal percentage tops the Big 12.
Until recently his offensive game entailed bumpy rolls to the basket and little else. Now the scouting report may be changing.
After Monday’s pregame shoot-around, coach Bob Huggins noticed Phillip sticking around to work on his 3-point jumper.
“He had a manager rebounding for him and I think he made 16 in a row,” Huggins said.
That streak continued into the 40 minutes that mattered. Phillip burned Iowa State by sinking 6-of-8 from deep, matching the number of 3-pointers he made all last season.
Color the Cyclones surprised.
“I went to Indian Hills with him,” Jameel McKay said. “I ain’t never seen that.”
Before Niang’s low-blow technical with 15:40 remaining, by the way, Phillip had scored six points. Afterward came the remaining 16.
Phillip’s roommate, Jaysean Paige, produced a 34-point barrage on drives at least partially facilitated by Iowa State suddenly paying attention to West Virginia’s outside shooters.
“Tarik shot the leather off tonight,” he said.
Then Paige chuckled upon hearing the part about his pal making only six 3-pointers last season. “You serious?”
It seems the 2015 memory of Phillip’s NCAA tournament dagger against Buffalo glossed over all the misfires. Paige also may not recall how Huggins had intended to remove Philip before he swished that survive-and-advance basket in Columbus.
A year later, Phillip has evolved into a 42-percent shooter from 3 and West Virginia is content to have him steering the offense—even creating his own—during crucial moments.
“He’s really put in an incredible amount of work,” Huggins said. “And unlike some guys, when he started to make shots he didn’t stop (practicing). It’s really a pretty good formula.”
Iowa State’s defense, plenty vulnerable even before Phillip turned unconscious, gives up more than 96 points per 100 possessions, the most in the league. West Virginia surrenders the fewest, about 84 points per 100 possession, which makes the 97-87 final score appear spot-on.
The Cyclones haven’t finished well on the road, which shows in their 4-6 record this season. And just 48 hours ago, WVU suffered its own late-game fold-up against Oklahoma.
“We disappointed our fans and everybody on Saturday,” said Phillip, “but we brought it today.”
Brought the noise, and brought the poise. Something that escaped even the most respectful of Cyclones.