By MIKE CASAZZA
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — This all had to feel very familiar for West Virginia. Kansas was back inside the Coliseum Tuesday. The Mountaineers were in the lead. The Jayhawks were calling timeouts. Esa Ahmad was even scoring with style and frequency. The lead was 10 points large, and then it was gone.
For the third straight game, WVU built and lost a double-digit advantage, and point guard Jevon Carter decided enough was enough. He found his teammates and offered up the best assist on a night that featured many others.
“Let’s play like we’re losing,” he demanded.
After Kansas turned a 55-45 deficit into a 59-58 lead with 9:52 remaining, the 18th-ranked Mountaineer outscored the second-ranked Jayhawks 27-10 and rollicked to an 85-69 win before a crowd of 13,694 at the Coliseum. WVU is the first team in five years to beat the Nos. 1 and 2 teams in the Associated Press poll in the same season.
“I thought if we continued to play like we’re losing and we stay after it and we don’t let down, then we wouldn’t start thinking, ‘I turned it over. It’s all right, we’ve got a lead. My man scored. It’s all right, we’ve got a lead,’ ” said Carter, who tiptoed around a triple-double with nine points, eight rebounds and nine assists. “I think we saw we’ve got to play like that on every possession.”
It’s WVU’s fourth straight win against Kansas at the Coliseum. The Mountaineers have wins against No. 6 Virginia, No. 1 Baylor and No. 2 Kansas. WVU beat the Bears and the Jayhawks, who are ranked No. 1 in the coaches’ poll, by 21 and 16 points.
“To be quite candid, I don’t we think we’ve played exceptionally well here, but I think that West Virginia has a good team,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “I think if we’re going to look at it over time, I think when they’re turned up, which they were [Tuesday], I think they’re certainly one of the best teams in the country.”
WVU ended a two-game losing streak after setbacks against Oklahoma and Kansas State, and the first three-game losing streak since the 2013-14 season seemed possible given the recent performances and Kansas’ 18-game winning streak.
As it turns out, this was an ideal spot on the schedule for a visit from the Jayhawks, the 12-time defending Big 12 regular-season champions. It demanded WVU fix what was not functioning.
“Good time for us, bad time for them,” guard Tarik Phillip said. “We’re coming off two losses, so this was a must-win for us. We came out and played with extreme energy. I felt like out energy was very different.”
The win gives the Mountaineers (16-4, 5-3 Big 12) some momentum in their quest for the regular-season championship, whereas a loss would have surely ended the pursuit. The Mountaineers have four Big 12 games before a Feb. 13 game at Allen Fieldhouse, where the Jayhawks (18-2, 7-1) have won 50 straight games.
“I think everyone who follows us or knows anything about basketball knows we’re — I don’t know, what are we? — five or six plays away from maybe not losing or losing one,” said Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins, who banked a $25,000 contract incentive for a regular-season victory against Kansas.
WVU, which has more regular-season wins against the Jayhawks than any other Big 12 team since the start of the 2014-15 season, gave Kansas quick cause for concern to start the second half. The Mountaineers had a three-point lead at the half and then scored the first two baskets of the second half. The second in transition forced the Jayhawks to call a timeout. They turned the ball over and Ahmad dunked for a nine-point lead as WVU neared formerly friendly territory.
They were 13-0 this season when leading by 10 or more points but lost the past two games despite 15- and 12-point leads.
WVU finally reached that higher ground when Phillip drove and made a layup, and the Mountaineers had eight scores on 11 possessions to start the half.
Kansas made four 3-pointers in a 14-3 run to regain the lead at 59-58. Ahmad made a jumper to retake the lead, and Carter soon advised his teammates to forget the score.
“It made sense in the moment,” said Nathan Adrian, who will start and finish his college career without losing at home to Kansas. “We’ve gotten big leads and managed to give them away because we don’t play as hard as we did to get that lead. He was right. You can’t do that. We had to play that way the whole game.”
Kansas trailed for the final 9:09 and was down 11 after Dax Miles made a layup at the end of the shot clock and then smacked a dribble free for a steal. He tried for another layup but pitched back to Sagaba Konate for a dunk and another Kansas timeout. Miles would make his only 3 of the game before Phillip and Miles made two free throws and Carter made a 3 for a 19-point lead with 28 seconds to go.
“I don’t know why it is, but that’s just how it is with us,” Carter said. “We come to play when we have to. Other games, it’s just like we let down. It’s something we’ve got to stop doing.”
Josh Jackson had 22 points and was 4 for 4 from the 3-point line for 22 points for Kansas. Frank Mason had 15 points and Devonte’ Graham had 17, but the duo finished with five assists and seven turnovers, and the Mountaineers kept Mason from attempting any foul shots. He was averaging six free-throw attempts per game.
“They play through their guards,” Carter said. “We knew if we stopped their guards we’d have a chance to win.”
Miles finished with 10 points, and eight came in the final 3:33. Adrian made all three of his 3-point attempts and had 11 points and five rebounds. Phillip made all four of his free throws on a night WVU was 19 for 23 and finished with 10 points, four rebounds, four assists and three steals.
WVU had 22 assists on 29 baskets and only committed eight turnovers.
“They’d heard enough about what our problems were,” Huggins said.
The night belonged to Ahmad, though, who had a career-high 27 points. He made 10 of 17 shots and 7 of 9 free throws after combining for 21 points on 8-for-24 shooting from the floor and 4-for-10 shooting at the free-throw line the prior four games. He hadn’t scored more than eight points in that strech but scored the first eight for the Mountaineers Tuesday and had 12 in the first half.
“I was just aggressive,” the sophomore said. “I knew I’d had two bad games in a row and I was in a slump. I’ve been passive instead of putting pressure on the defense.”
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