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WVU basketball: Mountaineers to play with sudden confidence

KANSAS CITY -- If West Virginia is serious about doing something silly and winning four games in a row for the first time all season to take the Big 12 tournament and the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, then the Mountaineers might as well go about it the right way.

"Our focus is to play the first half like we're playing the second half and play like we're down 20 points from the start," freshman Eron Harris said.

Harris, who has never played in a college postseason game, is being sincere. After 31 regular-season games, the Mountaineers seem at peculiar peace with an identity created by a series of frustrating first halves and surging second halves.  

"We've got to come out hungry, maybe go into the locker room before the game and act like we're down 20 points so we come out with the right mindset to play hungrier," Harris said. "I think everyone has seen that at our best we can beat some of the best teams in the nation. It's up to us."

It begins with tonight's 7 p.m. game against Texas Tech at the Sprint Center, an occasion not likely to begin with a forged pregame atmosphere Harris suggested, but nevertheless focused on fewer extremes.

"We've played well at times," WVU Coach Bob Huggins said. "We just haven't been as consistent as what we need to be."

The Mountaineers and Red Raiders play for the third time this season on the Big 12 Network and the winner plays top-seed Kansas. WVU (13-18, 6-12) is 2-0 against Texas Tech (10-19, 3-15), but neither win was easy. Both featured good and bad stretches for the Mountaineers.

"I think if we can put it together, we're not that far away from being able to beat some pretty good people," Huggins said.

The Mountaineers can't get enough wins to finish at or above .500, so the tournament title is their only chance to make the postseason. Anything less snaps WVU's streak of nine straight seasons with a postseason bid - seven of those being NCAA tournaments.

No Big 12 team has won four games in four days to take the tournament. WVU's longest winning streak this season is three games. Six straight losses, the longest streak in Huggins's 31 years as a college coach, precedes the school's first appearance in the Big 12 tournament, where things seem as uncertain as an underdog is willing to make them.

"I think this will be as exciting and as open as any Big 12 tournament since I've been at KU," Kansas Coach Bill Self said.

If nothing else, the Mountaineers arrive here confident they're not far from being at least dangerous. They were down 44-20 at halftime Saturday and trailed by 27 points in the second half, but started stringing together made shots and pressuring Iowa State into turnovers to rally and cut the lead to four points with time to spare and then three points in the final minute.

WVU lost, again, but seemed to find confidence is the response to such a low moment.

"The thing is, if we started the way we played in the second half, we would have beaten them by 15," senior Deniz Kilicli said. "We didn't let them score. But we came out like we didn't know they could shoot - Iowa State can shoot. That's how they win games. We left them wide open and let them make shots and that was the problem."

The Mountaineers solved the problem in the second half and forced 14 turnovers and made 20 baskets - more than they made in eight full games.

"Hopefully it keeps going like that," Kilicli said. "If we become a team, we're hard to deal with that."

The Red Raiders, who allowed WVU season-high shooting (56.5) and 3-point (55.6) percentages in a home loss last month, have lost two in a row and 11 of 12. The only win was against TCU, the last-place team in the Big 12. Eight of the losses were by at least 15 points.

Texas Tech, playing out the end of the season for interim coach Chris Walker, enters with indifferent momentum, too, following an overtime loss to Texas. The lead was 16 points in the first half, but the Longhorns ended up with a 71-69 win thanks in large part to the Red Raiders shooting 20-for-37 at the foul line. They missed three free throws in the final minute of regulation and then four in overtime.

"I think the guys have a great attitude," Walker said. "I think they played their hearts out, but missed a couple free throws. I told the players it's a concentration thing. They did everything humanely possible to keep themselves in the game while missing 17 free throws. A couple different things here and there and there's another outcome."

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at mikec@dailymail.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.


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