Kansas' quest to recapture the Big 12 title took a major step forward Wednesday night as the No. 3 Jayhawks came back from a nine-point deficit in the second half to defeat No. 14 West Virginia, 58-49, in Morgantown.
The victory gives KU a season sweep over a program that has routinely given Kansas more than it can handle.
The Jayhawks eked out a seven-point victory against the Mountaineers at Allen Fieldhouse in early January, but West Virginia had won five of the last six contests between the two in Morgantown entering Wednesday. That made this a crucial game for a Kansas team just one game behind No. 2 Baylor for first place in the Big 12.
West Virginia entered the matchup fighting for third place with Texas Tech. Coming off a loss to a mediocre Oklahoma team on Saturday, the Mountaineers needed another statement victory as March nears. As much as wins over Wichita State, No. 2 Ohio State and No. 22 Texas Tech have helped West Virginia's resume, losses to St. John's, Kansas State and OU are hard to look past.
On Wednesday, WVU suffered a loss for the third time in its last five games.
Most importantly, it essentially knocks the Mountaineers out of the Big 12 title race. With seven games left—including two against Baylor—it continues to look like either the Bears or Jayhawks will come out on top.
- Devon Dotson, G, Jayhawks: 15 points, four rebounds, two assists
- Isaiah Moss, G, Jayhawks: 13 points, two rebounds, three three-pointers
- Marcus Garrett, G, Jayhawks: nine points, seven rebounds, five steals, four assists
- Oscar Tshiebwe, F, Mountaineers: 14 points, nine rebounds
- Jordan McCabe, G, Mountaineers: 10 points, five rebounds
Isaiah Moss, KU defense sparks late run
For all its offensive miscues, all the early fouls and all the unforced errors, Kansas ended the game like the title contender it appears to be.
The Mountaineers were held scoreless in the last five minutes as the Jayhawks took a 13-1 run to the final buzzer. Udoka Azubuike, hampered by foul trouble, swatted shots away without fear of getting whistled. And throughout it all, Isaiah Moss stepped up as the threat KU couldn't win the game without.
The Iowa transfer came to KU as an outside-scoring threat but hadn't been able to consistently knock down shots this season with the three-point line moved back. On Wednesday night, he reversed that trend when the Jayhawks needed it most.
All night long, West Virginia dared Kansas to shoot from outside. By taking away the paint with constant double-teams, Azubuike was unable to establish himself as KU's main scoring threat, and that put the team in the awkward position of trying to win a game without the help of the NCAA's leader in field-goal percentage (75.9 percent).
Enter Moss, the only Jayhawk to hit a three in the first half who added two more late in the second to push Kansas ahead.
That paved the way for Marcus Garrett and Azubuike to play lockdown defense the rest of the way. In the last 5:07 of the game, West Virginia was held scoreless with five turnovers.
That was how Kansas played on a bad night in a place it historically has little success. It likely won't find many settings that prepare it for the NCAA tournament in March quite like it did on a Wednesday in mid-February.
Tshiebwe shines in loss
There was plenty to dislike about West Virginia on Wednesday. The team squandered a second-half lead against a rival that had its best players in foul trouble (Azubuike with three, Garrett with four, Dotson with three, McCormack with three), it shot just 27.6 percent from the field in the second half, and it committed 19 turnovers.
Only one thing will make Mountaineers fans feel a bit better: the play of Oscar Tshiebwe.
The freshman was a game-changing force for WVU, even outperforming his counterpart in Azubuike with three of his nine boards coming on offense. That helped the Mountaineers take a 15-4 edge on the offensive glass, which they turned into 13 second-chance points. If not for their inability to take care of the ball on offense late in the game, Tshiebwe's play would've been the main story.
He was a complete difference-maker, frustrating Kansas to the point that it could hardly play through its bigs the way head coach Bill Self prefers and forcing the Jayhawks to make threes in order to win.
That Kansas was able to do so isn't an indictment of Tshiebwe. If not for the budding star, the Mountaineers wouldn't have stood a chance against the No. 3 team in the country.
In the coming years, he'll be one of the forces to reckon with in the Big 12. For now, he already gave one of the top teams in the league more than it could handle.
West Virginia has a quick turnaround for an even tougher opponent as it heads to Waco for a Saturday matchup with Baylor. It's the first of two meetings between the Bears and Mountaineers this season and provides BU with one of the toughest matchups remaining on its schedule.
Kansas returns home for back-to-back games against unranked teams as Oklahoma visits Allen Fieldhouse on Saturday with Iowa State in town on Monday.