MORGANTOWN — The fact that Kansas State was without head coach Bruce Weber and was down to eight scholarship players due to COVID-19 issues didn’t much matter to West Virginia.
The Mountaineers played the same way they had for much of the year on Saturday — complete with falling into a big, early hole and mounting an even bigger second-half rally.
From down 17 points in the first half to up eight in the second half, to hanging on for dear life down the stretch, it was just another afternoon in the WVU Coliseum as — behind 26 points from senior guard Sean McNeil — the Mountaineers gritted out a 71-68 win over the Wildcats to pick up their first Big 12 Conference win of the season.
It was an all-too-familiar story line pulled straight from earlier, similar wins over the likes of Eastern Kentucky, UAB and others, but it’s become almost formulaic. And all of those past experiences from this season and further back helped yet again on Saturday.
“We’ve been down, since I’ve been here, 19, 17, 15, whatever, so we were down  and we’ve played better teams and had to come back from bigger deficits,” WVU senior guard Taz Sherman explained. “So, at halftime we were like, ‘Let’s calm ourselves down, get into our offense, play better defense, locate shooters, get back in transition, run on transition too and secure the rebound, secure defensive possessions.’ You’ve just got to constantly communicate that to guys.”
While the Wildcats were in the midst of COVID-19 issues, the Mountaineers (12-2 overall, 1-1 Big 12) had recovered from theirs. Sherman, senior forward Gabe Osabuohien and reserve guard Kobe Johnson were all back after missing last Saturday’s 74-59 loss at Texas to open conference play.
All three certainly had their moments on Saturday. Sherman, the leading scorer in the Big 12 entering Saturday at 20.9 points per game, had 14 points, including back-to-back 3-pointers to give WVU a 59-53 lead with 6:17 remaining. Johnson had five straight points in the first half as the Mountaineers attempted to rally from their early deficit, and Osabuohien took four charges and snared a game-high 12 rebounds.
McNeil followed Sherman’s triples with a jumper to give the Mountaineers an eight-point advantage, their biggest of the day. But even with momentum and depth on WVU’s side with just 5:49 to go, the Wildcats wouldn’t go away.
A 3-pointer from Nijel Pack sparked a 10-4 run, with another Pack triple bringing the Wildcats (8-6, 0-3) to within two at 65-63 with 2:20 to go. McNeil cashed in twice at the foul line with 1:24 left and that was answered by a Markquis Nowell layup off a Pack offensive rebound with the clock showing 18 seconds.
But for a team that has been much maligned for its foul shooting, West Virginia came up with answers when it had to at the stripe. First it was Kedrian Johnson, who hit both of two attempts with 15 seconds left to put WVU up four. Ismael Massoud banked in a 3-pointer from the corner to suddenly cut WVU’s lead to one with 5.1 seconds left.
On the inbound play, WVU’s Jalen Bridges, who hadn’t scored to that point, was fouled and, despite a timeout between shots and some officials’ confusion before receiving the ball to attempt his second, calmly stroked them both.
“He said, ‘That was my first two points of the game,’ I said, ‘That was the biggest points of the game,’” McNeil said. “[Johnson] going to the line, JB hitting those two free throws, those were probably the biggest buckets of the game.”
Kansas State got one more look but a running 3-point attempt from Nowell barely grazed the front of the iron and that was that.
“Huge comeback win,” McNeil added. “They’re good. That was a good win for us.”
Leading 6-4 in the early going, Kansas State took control with a 17-2 run, jumping up 23-6 with 11:29 remaining in the first half with the spurt culminated by a thunderous Davion Bradford dunk. Bradford was whistled for a technical foul after staring down WVU’s Pauly Paulicap and sparked by a pair of resulting McNeil free throws, and the Mountaineers scored 12 of the next 16 points to climb to within nine at 27-18.
West Virginia would get it to eight but Mark Smith hit back-to-back 3s for the Wildcats and a final free throw to send K-State to the locker room with a 40-27 halftime lead.
Pack finished with 20 points to lead Kansas State with Smith adding 14, Massoud 13 and Nowell 10 to go with 10 assists. Kansas State made 13 3-pointers but was just 4 for 15 in the second half after going 9 for 19 in the first.
Kedrian Johnson added 11 points to West Virginia’s cause.