By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
Aaric Murray put on a spectacular show off the bench and West Virginia cut a 15-point deficit to two points late in the second half but could not find a way to get past No. 1/2 Kansas, losing, 61-56, before a wild crowd.
Murray scored 17 points, hit 3 of 5 3-point shots and grabbed seven rebounds as he almost inspired the Mountaineers to a stunning upset.
Instead, the Jayhawks of Coach Bill Self won their 18th consecutive game, giving them a 19-1 record.
Seven-foot Jeff Withey finished with 15 points and seven rebounds while Travis Releford also scored 15 for the Jayhawks.
The students gathered early and ready to put on their game face for national television, and keeping with the “Stripe the Coliseum” theme for the evening they had themselves a blue section between two gold sections.
If Kansas was going to win this one, it would not be their fault as they were ready to rock ’n’ roll, some shirtless, some dressed in the zaniest of costumes including Batman and Batgirl, some with blown-up pictures not only of basketball coach Bob Huggins’ head, player Deniz Kilicli’s head but also of football coach Dana Holgorsen’s.
The town was not quite as excited about the game as the students, tickets being offered online for $2 just hours before the game.
Kansas had been promoted to No. 1 in the nation in the coaches’ poll earlier in the day, sitting second in the AP poll, making them the kind of basketball royalty that qualified to have Brent Musberger, Fran Fraschilla and Holly Rowe be assigned the Big Monday announcing chores by ESPN.
All the parts were in place for a classic, beginning with Matt Jones’ emotional rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and the anticipation of the Red Panda Acrobat’s always entertaining halftime show.
Only Huggins’ athletes had to cooperate.
That seemed to be the most difficult aspect of the evening as Kansas completely dominated the early going. It took WVU 7 minutes and 24 seconds before it could score a basket, that coming on a Deniz Kilicli hook, and with 6 minutes left in the half the Mountaineers trailed by 15, 29-14.
But Huggins continued moving players in and out, trying to find some combination that would slow the Jayhawks and there came a time when Murray asserted himself and changed the flow.
With 4:30 remaining in the half, Murray stepped in front of a crosscourt pass and stole it, broke free ahead of everyone and hit a thunderous dunk that cut the Kansas lead to 30-20, bringing a roar from the crowd that only increased in intensity when guard Gary Browne made another steal,
drove on the 7-foot Jeff Withey and fed Murray, who not only hit the layup but drew a foul and it was 30-23.
That was as close as WVU would get, the half ending with KU in front 38-30, but WVU had established that it could play with the Jayhawks, Murray offsetting Withey’s 13 points with nine of his own.
Murray’s play carried over into the second half as he hit WVU’s first basket, his second 3 of the night, and then made a steal as the crowd became more jacked up, helped no end by the return of the “YMCA” during the first time out and a fan holding aloft a sign that read:
The Mountaineers eventually cut the lead to two points but could never get over the hump.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.