Nobody told West Virginia that this Big 12 Tournament was Kansas' to lose, nor did the Mountaineers particularly seem to care about being outnumbered in fan support. Despite the buzz surrounding the possibility of KU's first conference tourney title since 2013 (we won't apologize for the delay), WVU was able to match the Jayhawks' intensity out of the gate.
But it wasn't sustainable.
As expected, West Virginia applied the pressure from its first defensive possession, even trying to trap Kansas' transition guys on missed shots. By my observation, with the score fairly close throughout the entire half, the Mountaineers pressed after every single made basket, forcing KU into 11 turnovers by the time it was over — four by Wayne Selden Jr.
It took two minutes before the game's first points were scored, when Devin Williams knocked down a 15-foot jumper and followed it up with dunk on WVU's next possession. He would also go on to draw a tough charge from Perry Ellis before Nathan Adrian extended the lead to 6-0 into the under-16 media timeout.
Devonte' Graham finally got Kansas on the board with a three-pointer at 15:31, but West Virginia jumped back out to a 10-5 lead, which it held until the 13:00 mark. Despite being hounded by the press into several early turnovers, Brannen Greene gave the Jayhawks their first lead with just over 12 minutes to go.
Perry Ellis was held scoreless until the 8:35 mark and had just seven points on 2/7 shooting in the first half, but it didn't seem to matter. Bill Self dug into his reserves and was nine deep within the first 8-9 minutes of the game. Greene and Carlton Bragg Jr. contributed the only five bench points for Kansas in the first half.
Despite going onto tie the game on a couple occasions, the Mountaineers didn't lead again until 1:12; and although they tried to claw back numerous times, KU always seemed to respond with an open jump shot, transition bucket or timely turnover (13 forced in the half). Still, WVU would lead 34-33 at the break after two go-ahead free throws by Elijah Macon and a defensive stop before the buzzer.
Williams led all scorers with a remarkable first half effort, scoring 18 points on 7/7 from the field, grabbing five rebounds and attempting the only free throws by a West Virginia starter.
Graham scored a team-high 10 for the Jayhawks, and every starter put points on the board in the first half except for Landen Lucas, who Bill Self would later criticize for his defensive effort against Williams.
But West Virginia's lead vanished, once again, after a Graham three on Kansas' first possession of the second half, followed by a Selden jumper on the next trip and a Frank Mason layup at the 18:00 mark to extend the Jayhawks' lead back up to six.
After Daxter Miles Jr. nailed WVU's first triple of the game, dueling turnovers gave Ellis a transition dunk, followed by another Graham three-pointer, giving KU a nine-point lead and prompting a frustrated Bob Huggins timeout.
The Mountaineers' bread and butter will always be pressure defense under Huggins, but several times it just seemed that guys were caught spectacularly out of position following a trap or double team. As we've all come to learn, these Jayhawk shooters will make you pay for that kind of misstep.
And on occasion, eventually, you reach the point of no return with the Kansas Jayhawks. They eclipsed their first double-digit lead of the game on two Graham free throws with 12:26 to go, and I found myself confirming what I've always believed to be true: if you're winning the field goal percentage, turnover margin and foul battles, it's hard not to come away on top.
And despite committing 19 turnovers for the game and getting outworked on the glass, the Jayhawks had the advantage in those critical categories, ultimately allowing them to hold at least a two-possession lead for the remainder of the game.
With the press working to perfection, West Virginia did actually cut the deficit to four with just over four minutes to go. Tarik Phillip missed two critical free throws that would have trimmed it to two, and Landen Lucas made the Mountaineers pay for it on Kansas' next trip down the floor, converting an old-fashioned three point play.
After WVU answered with a layup, Selden hit a three as the shot clock expired, giving KU an eight-point lead and blowing the roof off the Sprint Center.
It remains incredible how easily the switch flips for Bill Self & Co. down the stretch, as West Virginia was rendered about as helpless in its final minutes as Iowa State was this year in Lawrence.
Alas, it was a 10-point victory for the Jayhawks.
The tournament's Most Outstanding Player, Devonte' Graham notched a team-high 27 points to go with five rebounds, three assists and four steals. Selden and Ellis added 21 and 17, respectively.
Despite fouling out with just over a minute to go, Williams scored a game-high 31 points and pulled down 10 rebounds for WVU. Not a single one of his teammates eclipsed seven points.
By most prognostications, this should almost guarantee West Virginia a spot on the 3-line when the bracket is announced tomorrow afternoon, and I would look toward the east coast as a first/second round location if the committee decides to reward proximity to the Mountaineers.
And for Kansas, it'll be yet another NCAA Tournament as a 1-seed — its sixth in the last 10 years — and a trip to Des Moines next week. Barring a complete shellacking by Virginia or Michigan State in their respective conference championship games, expect to hear the newly crowned Big 12 Tournament Champions announced as the top overall seed.