CLEVELAND, Ohio — Yes, West Virginia, the Mountaineers are real.
Maybe even real enough to win the first Big 12 men’s basketball title in program history.
In its final game before jumping into league play, West Virginia showed that will be a force to be reckoned with this season, knocking off No. 2 Ohio State 67-59 in an NCAA tournament-like atmosphere at Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse.
The Mountaineers haven’t beaten a team with that ranking away from WVU Coliseum since sinking Kentucky to reach the 2010 Final Four. West Virginia isn’t executing at that high of a level yet, but this is certainly starting to feel like a team that should be playing more than one game this March.
It wasn’t just beating one of the nation’s best teams that showed these Mountaineers are not to be trifled with. It’s how they did it.
WVU has two of the best big men in the Big 12 in Oscar Tshiebwe and Derek Culver. Everyone West Virginia plays know this to be the case. And if you can somehow neutralize them — or better yet, take both of them off the floor — logic says you’ve got the Mountaineers beat.
The Buckeyes strategized accordingly.
Ohio State leaned in to falling down, hitting the ground with impressive ease and drawing a few bonus calls from an officiating crew with itchy whistle lips. Tshiebwe had two fouls within two minutes. Only 19 seconds into the second half, he had four.
Culver was also a frequent visitor to the bench, picking up four fouls. Logan Routt, pressed into extra minutes due to the foul problems of his fellow bigs, fouled out himself.
This was the type of game you typically chalk up under the frustrating heading of “maybe they would have won if they weren’t playing short-handed.”
Somehow, West Virginia still won even with that set of circumstances, finding a new strength when its expected one was missing.
The play of freshman point guard Miles McBride was the biggest factor.
In a game where his Ohio State counterparts combined for 13 points, nine turnovers and three assists — remember, the Buckeyes showed no interest in recruiting the Cincinnati Kid — McBride delivered 21 points and a pair of assists to go with just two turnovers.
But one man is not enough to beat the No. 2 team in the country alone.
The Mountaineers needed Chase Harler, the defensive pest who managed to chip in 10 points — outscoring Culver and Tshiebwe combined. Typically, that kind of occurrence is something you’d only expect to see in a 30-point loss.
They needed Gabe Osabuohien, whose energy off the bench continues to propel this team in ways that can only be fully appreciated from inside the arena.
West Virginia even needed Jordan McCabe, who has been running the risk of turning into an invisible man as McBride’s star continues to rise. McCabe subbed in late, canning four straight free throws to soothe a team that has been shaky from the foul line in the past month.
Coaches often talk about total team victories, but in many cases it’s little more than lip service. Not here. This was a game where the Mountaineers needed something from everyone who walked on the floor, and they got it.
You know the old March adage of “survive and advance?”
Performances like this against teams like Ohio State are precisely how it’s done.
After getting bullied by its Big 12 counterparts a year ago, it looks like West Virginia is prepared to return the favor in 2020.