When historians – or the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee – delve into the West Virginia 2019-20 basketball season, Tuesday night’s 77-71 win at Iowa State will be far from the Mountaineers most impressive victory.
But it probably was their most important.
The win was far from an aesthetic beauty for WVU, especially its performance after halftime. But to a famished man, a can of Spam tastes like filet mignion. And these Mountaineers were starving for a win.
West Virginia (20-10, 8-9 Big 12) snapped a three-game losing streak and a six losses in seven games free fall in the win over a short-handed Iowa State (12-18, 5-12) team. The win likely sealed WVU’s spot in the NCAA Tournament after missing out last season. It keeps the Mountaineers hopes for a bye in the Big 12 Tournament alive (albeit they’ll likely need some help).
As important as any of that was the possibility (hope?) that these young Mountaineers will gain a boost of much-needed confidence from just their second Big 12 road win of the season.
WVU’s first-half performance might have been the best basketball the Mountaineers have played all season. After weeks of anemic offensive output, they exploded in the first half in Ames, Iowa. The Mountaineers shot 56 percent from the field in the first half, nearly 20 percent better than they have during the past seven games. They hit 4 of 8 from the 3-point line in the half, finding a stroke that has been AWOL all year.
And WVU’s defensive returned to the form it showed for the first two-thirds of the season. The Mountaineers stifled Iowa State, holding the Cyclones to less than 40-percent shooting and took a commanding 44-31 lead into the locker room.
But as has been the case for most of the past month, the Mountaineers can’t seem to stand prosperity. Iowa State boat-raced WVU out of the locker room, outscoring West Virginia 20-4 in the first eight minutes of the second half, turning a 13-point deficit into a 51-48 lead.
At this point, based on how WVU had played for the last three weeks, fans could have been forgiven for thinking “here we go again” in anticipation of another collapse.
It seems the thought occurred to West Virginia coach Bob Huggins.
“We’re really young and we haven’t been in situations like that like veteran teams have,” Huggins said of his team not maintaining its first-half excellence. “We’ve done some really dumb things, at times, and we’ve had games where we just turned it over repeatedly and got ourselves in holes we couldn’t get back out of.”
Against Iowa State, they got out. And digging out from the hole was a team effort.
Miles McBride gave the Mountaineers an offensive spark with his team-high tying 17 points, including hitting 4-for-4 critical free throws in the final 16 seconds to seal the game.
Derek Culver was dominant, especially in the first half. Culver finished with 17 points and nine rebounds.
Freshman Oscar Tshiebwe’s second-half play was instrumental in keeping the Mountaineers afloat during the Cyclones surge. Foul trouble rendered Tshiebwe a non-entity in the first half, as he sat for most of it and had just two points and took only two shots. He rebounded big time in the second half and finished with 11 points and nine rebounds. Just as importantly, he was able to stay on the floor throughout the rest of the game despite playing with three fouls.
Taz Sherman also tallied double-figure scoring, racking up 12 points including a pair of 3-pointers for WVU.
Tuesday night’s win doesn’t solve all of WVU’s problems. It doesn’t come close. As Huggins alluded, the eight-minute stretch at the start of the second half almost completely undid 32 minutes of well-played basketball.
The Mountaineers survived that lapse against a bad and undermanned Iowa State team. They won’t against the better competition that is to come.
But the most important thing the Mountaineers needed to do in Ames was win. They did.
A team’s most important win isn’t always its best one.