By Cam Huffman
With a few different bounces, the West Virginia University basketball team could be 3-0 in Big 12 play, looking to stay at the top in today’s 9 p.m. clash on the road with Iowa State on ESPN2.
Instead, the Mountaineers (8-7) are 1-2 in Big 12 play and in and facing what has to be considered a must-win tonight in Ames, Iowa against the Cyclones (11-4), who would have knocked off No. 6 Kansas in Allen Fieldhouse last week were it not for a Ben McLemore banked 3-pointer that tied the gama at the end or regulation and allowed the Jayhawks to come back to win 97-89 in overtime.
There have been signs of hope from this group of Mountaineers. After falling to Duquesne and struggling to beat Oakland and Eastern Kentucky in December, WVU had Oklahoma on the ropes in its Big 12 opener, before letting the Sooners storm back from a 12-point second-half deficit to win 67-57.
WVU showed some heart to come back and beat Texas on the road 57-53 in overtime a week ago, and Saturday it played one of its best overall games of the season and had a lead on No. 18 Kansas State in the closing seconds.
The Wildcats, though, got to the foul line for to regain the lead, and WVU’s final possession with eight seconds on the clock turned to disaster when Jabarie Hinds tried to take the ball to the rim against a pair of KSU defenders, only to see the ball swatted away.
The final possession, though, wasn’t as big as the Mountaineers’ 12-for-22 mark at the free throw line.
“Going into the Texas game, we had made more free throws than anybody in the power six conferences,” said WVU head coach Bob Huggins. “Then we go 12-for-22.”
Today’s challenge will be a difficult one. Hilton Coliseum is knows as one of the most difficult arenas in the Big 12 in which to play. The Cyclones have won 16 straight home games dating back to last season, and they have a talented team led by senior guard Will Clyburn, who’s averaging 14.3 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game.
“We really try to get the ball up and down the floor and score before the defense gets set,” said ISU head coach Fred Hoiberg.
WVU, though, has found solid performances from junior center Aaric Murray, who now leads the team in points per game (10.6), rebounds per game (7.5) and blocked shots per game (1.6). He’s scored 33 points and grabbed 15 rebounds in the last two games.
“He’s getting better,” said Huggins, who has had some success against the Cyclones in the past, winning a pair of games against ISU while at Cincinnati and two more while at Kansas State for a 4-1 overall record.. “We’ve got to get him to not take some plays off, but he is getting better every time out.”
Point guard Juwan Staten, the team’s leader in assists and steals, didn’t play in the second half against Texas or in Saturday’s game against KSU. Huggins has said only that the sophomore Dayton transfer needs to “get on the same page” as everybody else. He’ll make the trip, but Huggins said he still hasn’t decided how much State will play.
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