By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
West Virginia bounced back from a disappointing 5-point home loss to conference leader Kansas with one of its strongest performances of the season, routing Texas Tech, 77-61, to give hope that coach Bob Huggins was right when he said his team still had a chance at making the NCAA Championships this season.
The victory ended a spell of four losses in five games and lifted the Mountaineers to 10-11 for the season and 3-5 in the Big 12 conference, while the Red Raiders fell to 9-10 and 2-6.
“We can still make a run. We can conceivably get ourselves on the bubble or better,” Huggins had said before leaving for Lubbock, Texas, on Friday. “Everyone wants to believe they have some hope. I don’t think that’s a hard sell.”
The victory was the 720th of Huggins career, which moved him past Don “The Bear” Haskins and alone into 19th place all time. He needs four more victories to match former DePaul coach Ray Meyers in 18th place.
WVU had played badly for most of the year before taking Kansas down to the wire with a strong, emotional performance, but the Mountaineers could not pull out the victory and no one was sure how they would react to the defeat.
It wasn’t going to be easy and it surely wasn’t going to be possible if they continued playing the way they had played.
Against Texas Tech, they didn’t.
They jumped off to a 12-point lead at 14-2 early with Deniz Kilicli showing the game everyone had expected from him in his senior season. He was behind the fast start and finished with nine points on 3-of-4 shooting, two rebounds, two assists, two blocked shots and a steal.
“I thought he gave us a big-time effort tonight. He had great energy. He’s frustrating sometimes and he doesn’t do some of the things you think he’s capable of doing, but he’s a great kid,” Huggins said, noting that it was important to put him in situations where the matchups were right.
And that energy he had was contagious.
WVU could not shake Texas Tech, though, and the Red Raiders cut the lead to three at the half, and midway through the second half they had narrowed it to 59-55.
Everyone in the building could sense this was a huge moment, especially the way WVU had let leads slip away earlier this year.
But this was when the two key players in the game stepped forward for WVU, freshman Eron Harris and sophomore Gary Browne.
Harris had suffered through a tough first half, making just one of five shots, and Browne had been through a dismal shooting season, owning but one 3-point basket in 13 attempts in Big 12 play coming into the game.
This would prove to be different.
Harris hit a 3, part of a huge outbreak by him that saw him lead all scorer with 18 points, and Browne would follow with another 3, his third of the game. Then when another guard, Juwan Staten, made a steal and dunk, the lead was back to 12 points.
“We kind of let those guards play,” Huggins said. “Gary hit a huge shot.”
Certainly, in the end, it was the guard play which allowed WVU to widen the lead down the stretch.
“We passed the ball — it wasn’t a dribbling exhibition today and we made some cuts,” said Huggins.
And that allowed the Mountaineers to get good shots, hitting a season high 56.5 percent for the game and a scorching 65 percent in the second half. The Mountaineers, notoriously bad 3-point shooters all season, made 10 of 18 with Harris showing the way as he bounced back from a two-point performance against Kansas.
Once the lead grew back to double figures WVU took control of everything that went on.
“The point-drop (defense) really slowed them down,” said Huggins. “They were trying to figure out what we were doing, which nobody can figure out because we have no idea what we’re doing.”
WVU forced 22 turnovers and stole the ball 10 times, which never allowed Texas Tech to get going on the kind of roll necessary to move into the lead.
WVU has a fast turnaround, flying home and facing Texas at 9 p.m. on Monday in an ESPN game.
NOTES: WVU has played Texas Tech twice and won both times, the first time coming in the 2005 Sweet 16 in Albuquerque when Bobby Knight coached the Red Raiders … WVU guard Juwan Staten left the game in the first half with an ankle injury but came back and played well in the second half … Bob Huggins is 39-1 in games when his team shoots 50 percent at West Virginia.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.