WVU basketball: Spurt gives Mountaineers hope for Big 12 tournament
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- His senior day had ended with another loss, the sixth in succession in a regular season that ended five games below .500.
His parents had traveled from the family's home in Turkey to the Coliseum and sat among the crowd that watched West Virginia fall behind by 27 points in a loss to Iowa State that would drop the Mountaineers to the No. 8 seed in this week's Big 12 tournament.
He had scored just four points and grabbed only four rebounds, but Deniz Kilicli felt pretty good about what he'd experienced. The Mountaineers rallied, unexpectedly and irresistibly, to within six points with plenty of time remaining and four points with less than a minute to go.
They had scored 54 points in the second half and made 52.6 percent of their shots with assists coming on 15 of the 20 baskets. The Cyclones were frazzled, turning the ball over 14 times for 22 WVU points and calling three timeouts to collect themselves.
Kilicli wasn't content with a moral victory. He wasn't accepting a consolation prize. At the end of a season not seen here since 2002, he knew he'd been making sense. What others had misunderstood was finally recognized.
"The reason I came here so many times and said all this stuff where people looked at me like, 'This guy is crazy. Why is he talking like that?' the reason why I was frustrated is that I know this team can do this for 40 minutes," Kilicli said. "It's just a matter of getting together and being mentally tougher than we are."
Granted, this was after an 83-74 loss, one that created the longest string of losses since seven in a row to end the 8-20 2002 season.
The Mountaineers (13-18, 6-12) were again down double digits after just 4:07, the 16th time in 31 regular-season games they trailed by at least 10 points. The loss was the 15th in those 16 games.
Yet when the Mountaineers, who were compromised by 12-0, 10-0 and 8-0 runs by Iowa State in the first half, turned a 24-point halftime deficit into a 27-point hole early in the second half, they answered with 10 unanswered points.
The Cyclones called timeout and scored seven straight points, but then fell victim to a 12-1 run and needed another timeout. This was not the same WVU team that fell behind and stayed off in the distance against Gonzaga, Purdue, Oklahoma State, Baylor, Kansas State or Kansas.
"This was the hardest we've played so far," Kilicli said.
It was the team that would challenge Michigan and come back from 13 down to beat Texas. It was the team that tied Iowa State on the road after trailing by 18 points, only to lose in the final seconds. It was the team that had the ball with a chance to win against Kansas State and lost to Kansas by five points, that lost by three to Baylor and trailed Oklahoma by 17 points Wednesday before getting as close as five points with four minutes to play.
"Everyone knew what to do," Kilicli said. "I think we did way better on rotations. People helped each other. It was like, bam, bam, bam. Everyone knew what to do at the same moment. Everyone wanted to win. Everyone wanted to do something for all the others. Nobody pouted. Nobody did any of that."
In the end, it was another loss and Kilicli played a part. He got stuck guarding Iowa State's Will Clyburn on a switch late in a possession and fouled Clyburn shooting a 3-pointer. Clyburn made all three free throws with 1:31 to go for a 76-67 lead.
Kilicli was nevertheless a factor in the comeback, despite his modest stats. He was a distinguished presence in the post and demanded double- and triple-teams against a defense that had Melvin Ejim, the Big 12's leading rebounder, for just 19 foul-plagued minutes.
All five of Kilicli's assists came in the second half. Each was on a 3-pointer as WVU spaced the floor to keep defenders away from Kilicli, but also open up room for shooters on the perimeter.
"We just raised them up," Coach Bob Huggins said. "I didn't think they could guard Deniz one-on-one. They had to bring help. We were going to get shots as long as we stayed spaced. Really, all we did was set back screens on the block for Deniz and throw it to him in space."
It worked and inspired the Mountaineers, who aren't used to streaky shooting, especially from 3-point range. The Mountaineers made 9 of 16 attempts in the second half. They missed 12 of 13 in the first half.
"I don't know what we were doing in the first half," Huggins said. "We didn't run any offense. I'm not blaming him, but when Deniz goes down and stands on the block, they know where he is. They're going to go down and give help and we don't get anything out of it. We've got to move him more. He can't stand there. The second half, all we did was back-screen to get him moving."
The Mountaineers now take whatever momentum the surge was worth to the Sprint Center in Kansas City for the conference tournament. They play Texas Tech (10-19, 3015) at 7 p.m. Wednesday on the Big 12 Network. WVU won both games against the Red Raiders this season, but not without adventure.
Texas Tech was within four points with five minutes to go in Lubbock, Texas, last month, but WVU made back-to-back 3s and then turned the Red Raiders over twice for layups in a 10-0 run. The Red Raiders missed a 3 to win the game at the buzzer in the Coliseum two weeks later.
The winner plays Kansas at 3 p.m. Thursday on ESPN2.
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.