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West Virginia’s “will to win” the difference in 71-68 comeback win over Kansas State

So far this season, West Virginia has found a way to win late and after a slow start on Saturday against Kansas State, it was no different. The Mountaineers overcame a 17-point first half deficit, defeating the Wildcats 71-68.

Early in the game, West Virginia came out flat. It had been a week since their previous game, and Kansas State had been dealing with COVID-19 issues the whole week. The Wildcats were without head coach Bruce Weber and had only eight players available to play in today’s game. That didn’t slow them down in the beginning however as they got out to a 23-6 lead with 11:29 remaining in the first half.

West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins said his team did not practice well this week and had a feeling they were going to come out slow.

“We were awful to start the game. We had no enthusiasm, we had no bounce in our step,” Huggins said. “I didn’t feel very good about the start of the game before it started just because just looking at them they were not the way they were normally are before a game.”

The Mountaineers would climb out of the whole they dug themselves into, but it would not be until late in the second half. West Virginia cut the Kansas State lead to 13 by halftime. In the second half, West Virginia opened the period on a 10-2 run, cutting the Kansas State lead to five with 15:58 left.

West Virginia would take their first lead of the game with 8:35 to go after a Sean McNeil three-pointer. Two Taz Sherman three-pointers sandwiched a steal from Kedrian Johnson, followed by a McNeil made jumper to put West Virginia ahead 61-53.

Huggins said Sherman is meant for big moments like these where he made two three-pointers to help put his team ahead.

“The guy’s a gamer,” Huggins said about Sherman. “Talking to his junior college coach, he’s a special guy. He makes those two big shots, those are hard shots. He makes them like ‘okay guys get on my back.'”

Another reason of West Virginia’s comeback was the play of Gabe Osabuohien. Osabuohien finished with two points and 12 rebounds, but drew seven fouls, including taking three charges.

Huggins said it is not all about scoring and that Osabuohien tries to do everything he can to help his team win.

“I think the biggest thing is the will to win. I think thats the biggest thing. I think Gabe Osabuohien has the will to win. Now he’s not a very good shooter and so everybody’s like ‘well he can’t shoot.’ Well he can’t shoot but he makes plays and he makes play after play after play that enables us to win games,” Huggins said.

Huggins then added other members of his team step into roles that help the team win that are not just scoring the ball.

“It’s not necessarily all making shots. In some cases it comes down to ball security. Who do you have that’s going to give us ball security. And obviously Keddy’s (Johnson) our best guy at ball security, not throwing the ball away,” Huggins added.

“Everybody has a job to do and the guys that do their job above and beyond are the guys that have that will to win or that will not to lose. And Gabe (Osabuohien) certainly has that, Sean’s (McNeil) had that, Taz (Sherman) has that, Keddy’s (Johnson) made big plays for us,” Huggins said.

McNeil matched his career high in points scoring 26 on the evening. With Sherman, Osabuohien and Kobe Johnson getting back from COVID-19 protocols yesterday, McNeil said all he was trying to do is what was best for his team.

“Just letting the game come to me,” McNeil said of his mindset on the floor. “I have trust in my teammates and I know they have trust in me so I was never trying to force. I knew that this was their first game back and they had only 24 hours prior to this to prepare so I knew they would probably be sucking air a little bit. I’m just glad we got the win, huge comeback win for us.”

A big part of the reason why West Virginia won was because of free throws made down the stretch. The Mountaineers made 7-of-10 free throws in the second half, including Jalen Bridges making a pair along with Kedrian Johnson.

“It’s no fear, it’s just all about having confidence in yourself and being ready for those type of moments,” Johnson said. Osabuohien added the whole time Johnson was at the free throw line he was talking to the Kansas State players. “The whole time he was up at the line when he knocked down those free throws, he was talking to the other team the whole time,” Osabuohien said. “[Kansas State] was saying ‘it’s off, it’s off,’ we know it’s good.”

Bridges found himself in foul trouble for the majority of the game, but his only two points came when they mattered most and that is what is most important according to McNeil.

He’s growing up, he’s maturing,” McNeil said of Bridges. “He said ‘that was my first two points of the game,’ I said that was the biggest points of the game. The two free throws he hit were huge and he’s just growing up, he’s getting better each day and we’re going to rely on JB (Bridges) here going forward.”

As for the mentality of this team, they rally behind the fact they have been here before and as a unit they know when they are down they just try and claw back slowly, rather than trying for the home run play.

“It can’t be all in one play. There’s not a 14-point play,” McNeil said. “So it’s just trying to get multiple stops in a row to give yourself a chance in the ballgame. “We’ve been there before. I’ve been in this same situation with these guys a whole lot of times,” Osabuohien said. “Know we’re down, just look at each other, we know what we gotta do, it’s just handling business.”

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