Mountaineers turn negative into positive

AP PhotoWest Virginia coach Bob Huggins speaks with West Virginia forward Emmitt Matthews Jr. (11) after a play during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Monday, Jan. 20, 2020, in Morgantown, W.Va. (AP Photo/Kathleen Batten)

MORGANTOWN — There’s an old idiom that goes “I can’t win for losing,” but don’t tell that to Bob Huggins and his West Virginia Mountaineers.

They won because they lost and may have finally found the way to put it all together for the season.

Last Saturday they went to Kansas State and were — to use Huggins' word — “embarrassed” by the Wildcats, who had been winless and in last place in the Big 12.

They played listlessly, without purpose, slow-walking through the motions of being a basketball team that, at that moment, was ranked 12th in the nation and perched to jump into the Top 10 with an impressive victory.

But while losing is a negative, it can be turned into a positive by the way a team reacts and the Mountaineers bounced back about 48 hours later with their biggest — and maybe most impressive — Big 12 win ever, beating Texas 97-59.

“That shows the will power we have,” forward Derek Culver said after he put together a 13-point, eight-rebound, two-assist, two-steal game. “A lot of teams can’t do that on the short turnover. We have to play up to our capabilities, not down to their capabilities, which is what we did at Kansas State.”

How were they able to turn that sour moment from a low point to a turning point in their season?

Attitude, as stressed by Emmitt Matthews Jr., who shook himself out of a long funk to regain his touch.

“It’s a game. It’s basketball,” he said. “The basketball gods aren’t always in your favor. We lost that game. It’s out the window. It just motivates us more.”

They didn’t panic, they didn’t give into fear that this promising season could fall apart as did last season.

The coaching staff didn’t rise up in anger.

“It was pretty normal,” Matthews said. “Whether we won, whether we lost, we’re going to come and work on what we need. We’re going to be the hardest working team in the country. It doesn’t change. The coaches came in with the same mentality.”

The time between games was short, which had to help. This wasn’t a team that needed to sit for a week on the kind of game they played at Kansas State.

Have practice, watch film, get a scouting report and get back up on that bicycle. It worked almost as an amphetamine of spirit.

The Mountaineers came out with a chip on their collective shoulder. They were more tiger than house cat. They not only had something to prove but they had their own honor to defend and, to be honest, Texas never had a chance.

They discovered things they had sought all year.

They committed a season-low eight turnovers, this from a team that was passing so badly early that Huggins had pulled out one of those old basketball toss back machines to work on their passing.


“We didn’t turn it over,” Huggins said. “Eight turnovers and, I think, three of those were at the end. If we don’t turn it over, we get shots, and we got a good chance to score some points.”

Not only did it get points for WVU, but the defense was so good that eight turnovers led to only one point. That’s one point in eight possession for Texas.

Then there was the rebounding. WVU prides itself in rebounding, but this was an overwhelming show of force against a team of equal size and quality athletes – WVU pulled down 53 rebounds and Texas 25.

“Rebounding the ball is a toughness factor,” Matthews said. “It goes with running down the loose balls, taking charges, blocked shots. That’s all defense. That’s locking down on defense.”

And then WVU shot 51.4 percent from the floor, a sign that its shooters were back on board and, quite honestly, they got the ball up close, scoring almost enough points in the paint to win the game alone, without any outside shots — 52 points.

The trick now is to carry it forward, to build on it, to add to the confidence when Missouri comes calling in the Big 12/SEC Challenge game Saturday at noon.

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel

React to this story: