KANSAS CITY, Mo.–Esa Ahmad recorded a double-double, scoring 15 points and grabbing 10 rebounds in West Virginia University’s come from behind win over Kansas State on Friday in the semifinals of the Big 12 Tournament.
It was the first time in weeks that Ahmad appeared to be himself.
After missing three consecutive games, dating back to Jan. 20 against Texas, the Cleveland, Ohio native struggled to find his tempo on the court.
In his return against Iowa State, the very same team the Mountaineers will battle for the title, Ahmad scored just five points on 1-of-6 shooting in 11 minutes. Overall, his play looked flat, which is understandable considering missed three contests.
However, the 6-foot-8, 225 pound forward exuberated a similar performance in WVU’s opening win over Texas. He scored three points on 1-of-6 shooting and he turned the ball over three times.
“After the first game, coach Martin told me just play, have fun,” Ahmad said. “I kind of felt myself pressing. They just told me to go out there and have fun and smile.”
Consequently, Ahmad resurged when the Mountaineers needed him most.
Trailing Kanas State by as many as 12 points, Tarik Phillip and Ahmad led WVU’s furious rally in the second half.
“We gave him the ball and just told him to be aggressive,” junior guard Jevon Carter said.
Phillip’s 3-pointer tied the game at 50-all and Ahmad gave the Mountaineers the lead when he made a free throw with 20.4 seconds to go.
But it was the junior’s defense that ultimately saved the day.
Following a K-State timeout, Ahmad and forward Nathan Adrian teamed up to force Kamau Stokes to make a desperation, one-handed pass to Dean Wade but the Wildcats ran out of time and WVU advanced to the championship with a 51-50 victory.
“They were trying to call screen the two guys who were supposed to guard the ball but Esa came over and helped well, which he was supposed to do, and they couldn’t get it toward the basket so that’s what kind of stopped them,” Adrian said.
Ahmad just wanted to complete the task at hand without drawing the foul.
“I tried not to foul,” he said. “I wanted to make it a tough shot, and it was a tough shot for him.”
His top-notch performance came just when the Mountaineers needed it most.
“My teammates stayed positive with me,” Ahmad said after the game. “They just stayed with me and told me I could do it. My coaches stayed positive. And I came out here and gave it all I had.”
While the Shaker Height High School alum turned the ball over the very first time he touched it, he just remained optimistic.
“I knew I couldn’t let that get to me,” he said. “I just had to keep making next play, next play. Everything is going to fall into place and it did.”
With the blink of an eye, Ahmad looked like the athlete WVU had seen on numerous times this season.
“He got back to being himself,” Carter added. “He got back to the rhythm got back to the Esa we been seeing all year.”
If the Mountaineers hope to beat red-hot Iowa State in the championship, they will need a repeat performance from Ahmad and a better overall team showing.
Cover Photo Credit: Kelsie LeRose, BGS