The West Virginia Mountaineers rode an 8-0 run over the final 56 seconds to earn an 80-76 win over the Texas Tech Red Raiders and avoid a third straight loss.
Things looked dire for the Mountaineers for much of the game, especially when they fell behind 76-72 with just over one minute remaining. Texas Tech was doing everything right and catching every break.
The usually stout West Virginia defense under head coach Bob Huggins was eaten up by the Red Raiders, who shot 46.5 percent from the field and were dazzling from the free-throw line, going 32-of-34.
Free throws have been a story for West Virginia during this rough patch. In the team's previous loss against Texas, the Mountaineers couldn't buy a shot from the charity stripe when they hit eight of 23 attempts. On Saturday, while they shot much better, the Red Raiders were like Stephen Curry from the line.
Chris Anderson of 247Sports noted the referees seemed to be quick with the whistle on West Virginia defenders:
Chris Anderson @CMAnderson247
If I'm coaching any other Big12 team, I tell my guards to just fling their head back any time a #WVU defender is near. Automatic foul.1/23/2016, 6:42:58 PM
Huggins has not been pleased with his team's performance of late coming into Saturday, offering this comment after West Virginia's 56-49 loss against Texas on Wednesday (per Anderson):
Chris Anderson @CMAnderson247
Wow. Bob Huggins with some scathing words for his #WVU squad. https://t.co/UDXbInmCCz1/21/2016, 2:49:14 AM
Things did end better for Huggins and West Virginia on Saturday, but there's still a lot of work to do. This was one of those games the Mountaineers are happy to escape with a solid road win, even though it wasn't indicative of how good they can be.
Key bench players Jaysean Paige and Tarik Phillip led West Virginia's offensive attack, combining to score 42 points.
Paige, in particular, is becoming West Virginia's not-so-secret weapon. The senior guard was averaging 13.2 points per game and shooting 48.8 percent coming into Saturday, leading Chris Jackson of the Daily Athenaeum to offer this brief assessment:
Chris Jackson @CJacksonWVU
I'll continue to say this, but Jaysean Paige more than deserves Sixth Man of the Year. He has 20 points off the bench once again1/23/2016, 8:08:29 PM
Phillip was instrumental in West Virginia's run to seal the victory, scoring the team's final eight points, prompting Matt Hauswirth of West Virginia Illustrated to bring back this preseason quote from Huggins:
Matt Hauswirth @matthaus_CNY
Huggins on Phillip preseason: "His JUCO coach said if he had 5 Tarik's on his team, he would've won every game. Relentless competitor." #WVU1/23/2016, 8:26:13 PM
Even though Phillip has struggled with his consistency this season, shooting less than 40 percent overall coming into Saturday, he's turned into one of West Virginia's essential players.
West Virginia director of digital media John Antonik noted this marked the second time Phillip has been the key figure in a victory this season:
John Antonik @JohnAntonik
Mountaineers stole one there thanks to Tarik Phillip. He willed WVU to a win at K-State and he willed another one today at Texas Tech ...1/23/2016, 8:26:20 PM
The game against Kansas State on Jan. 2, a double-overtime 87-83 win, Phillip scored six of his 14 points after regulation. Depth is something that West Virginia will need going through a grueling Big 12 schedule, so getting key contributions off the bench in a win like this will be huge moving forward.
Zach Smith led Texas Tech's offensive charge with a career-high 18 points, but head coach Tubby Smith's depth also played a huge role, with 10 players scoring at least two points.
Justin Gray was terrific coming off Texas Tech's bench, providing 11 points and grabbing a team-high six rebounds.
Michael LaBarre of 247Sports noted early on that Gray hurt his ankle and had to be taken out, but he was able to return and hit what appeared to be a game-clinching shot that put Texas Tech up 72-67 with less than 2.5 minutes to play.
The Mountaineers didn't waver against the adversity, as Phillip had three field goals and two steals after the team fell behind 76-72 with just over one minute remaining.
This has already been an unusual season in college basketball. Five teams that have reached No. 1 in the Associated Press Top 25 have already lost, with Oklahoma being the latest to fall Monday. Michigan State and Duke have had three-game losing streaks.
The Mountaineers nearly joined that marquee duo, but they instead eked out a road win against a Texas Tech squad that will be an NCAA tournament contender.
There are more lessons to be learned about a team when it stares defeat in the face. West Virginia needed to show something Saturday after losing to Oklahoma and Texas. It got off to a sluggish start before finding the right mix of attacking offense and aggressive defense.
The Mountaineers still have a long way to go during the regular season before they are tournament-ready, but this was a great game to show them what it will be like when March Madness begins.
On Texas Tech's final possession, in which it had a chance to take the lead down 78-76, Huggins noted his team was prepared for the Red Raiders' attack based on what they usually do (per Antonik of WVUSports.com):
I thought they were going to flare Gotcher, that’s generally what they do when they need a basket. Nate [Adrian] switched the deal and did a pretty good job on the baseline guarding the baseline and they kicked it out. Now Gotcher got a shot, but it was kind of a hurried shot. Then we fumbled the ball again, they get it and they’re going out of bounds so they throw it in and it goes to half court and we ended up with a dunk … just the way I drew it up.
The way things played out Saturday certainly wasn't lost on Huggins, per Krista Pirtle of RedRaiders.com:
Krista Pirtle @KristaPirtle
WVU Coach Huggins: We're lucky. We've been unlucky sometimes too. We'll take it.1/23/2016, 8:43:15 PM
Even basking in the glow of a difficult victory against a good Texas Tech team, Huggins did offer high praise to the opposing coach, per Pirtle:
Krista Pirtle @KristaPirtle
Huggins: I knew when I saw on the ticker that they hired Tubby Smith I knew they wanted to win. He's a winner & has won everywhere he's been1/23/2016, 8:47:28 PM
These two teams are scheduled to meet again on March 2 at West Virginia, shortly before the Big 12 conference tournament, so there is plenty of time for growth individually and collectively on both sides.