MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - The issues West Virginia had in recent losses against Oklahoma and Kansas State showed up once again today against Texas A&M, but the 18th-ranked Mountaineers were able to overcome them to defeat the Aggies, 81-77, in the opening game of the SEC/Big 12 Challenge, presented by Sonic.
Poor decision making, defensive lapses and an inability to throw the basketball into the ocean from the free throw line in the second half almost caused a 13-point meltdown in the game's remaining 2:36, but Esa Ahmad
finally managed to make two free throws with five seconds left and the Mountaineers leading by just two.
All Texas A&M (11-9) could do after that was get off a meaningless 3 as the clock expired.
“We were up (20) early in the second half and we stopped guarding,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said afterward. "They started making shots and they got some confidence. I constantly tried to explain to these guys, ‘You’re playing high-level major college teams. They have guys who can play.’
“Those two inside guys (Robert Williams and Tyler Davis) are pros. They are going to play in the NBA. They’ve got two guys who really shoot the ball and we let them get started,” Huggins explained.
There were many moments this afternoon when the 12,836 who showed to watch this one thought win No. 17 was in the bag:
* When the lead was 20 with 19:32 to go in the second half
* When Jevon Carter
's 3 ended the team's long scoreless drought with 8:04 left to put the Mountaineers back up by 11
* When Carter hit another 3 with 2:36 remaining to make it a 13-point game
* When Ahmad got his free throw to go in with 1:09 left to once again get the lead to double digits
* And, finally, when Elijah Macon
dunked the ball with 23 seconds left to make it a two-possession game.
But after Macon’s breakaway dunk, Hampton’s 3 nine seconds later reduced West Virginia's lead to 79-77 with 14 seconds left.
Here, Ahmad was fouled by Tonny Morelos-Trocha with five seconds showing on the clock and he was able to get both free throws to go in - avoiding West Virginia’s sixth and seventh misses from the line in the second half.
Overall, the Mountaineers hit 12 of their 23 free throw attempts, but missed seven after the break.
“I think when the first guy up starts missing free throws it kind of gets into everybody’s head a little bit, particularly when we’ve shot them so poorly,” Huggins said. “I don’t know what else to say because we practice them.”
WVU’s poor free throw shooting almost canceled out the 23 turnovers it caused this afternoon - most of those coming in the first half, including five from sophomore guard Chris Collins.
It got so bad for Collins that the WVU students began chanting ‘we want Collins!” when he was taken out of the game near the end of the first half.
After halftime, A&M took better care of the basketball and got the ball in the hands of its outstanding players, Admon Gilder, Tyler Davis and JC Hampton.
's team-high 19 points included a pair of big second-half 3s. He also led the Mountaineers with nine rebounds. All-Pro Photography/Dale Sparks photo
Gilder led everyone with 24, Davis finished with 19 points and 18 rebounds while Hampton came off the bench to score 21 - 16 of those coming in the second half.
Williams, a potential NBA first-rounder later this summer, contributed eight points and 10 rebounds.
Carter hit two critical second-half 3s for West Virginia and finished with 19. He also grabbed a team-best nine boards.
Ahmad contributed 14 points - 10 of those coming in the first half - while Daxter Miles Jr.
West Virginia (17-4) tried 26 3-point field goal attempts, hitting 11, while Texas A&M finished the afternoon 10 of 21 from behind the arc.
“If it was me, when I played and I missed three straight 3s I probably would have tried something else - drove it to the goal or done something else other than shoot another fall-away 3,” Huggins said.
A&M was playing today's game without its second-leading scorer D.J. Hogg, who didn't make the trip after suffering a foot injury in the Ole Miss victory on Wednesday night.
Today’s win gives West Virginia a 12-1 record outside of Big 12 play, and snaps the Mountaineers’ six-game losing streak to SEC teams dating back to a victory over Vanderbilt in Puerto Rico in 2011.
West Virginia is now 1-3 in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge since joining the Big 12 in 2012, and 2-4 overall in these games (the Mountaineers were 1-1 when members of the Big East).
Big 12 action resumes on Tuesday night when the Mountaineers travel to Iowa State.