KANSAS CITY, Mo. — On Friday, West Virginia recorded a 69-67 victory over Oklahoma in the Big 12 tournament semifinals. Here’s an instant analysis of that game:
The craziest thing I’ve ever seen: Buddy Hield had a tough night. But he launched a half-court shot that every Oklahoma fan at the Sprint Center celebrated when it bounced off the backboard and went in. A game winner? That certainly would have fit the Buddy Hield narrative. Hield ran over to press row after the shot, climbed over two tables and jumped into the crowd in a wild, wild scene. The Sooners were pumped, some joining Hield in the stands. But officials waved off the shot, ruling that the ball was still in Hield’s hands when the shot clock expired. Then West Virginia forward Jonathan Holton decided to jump onto a table and celebrate, which did not please Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins.
West Virginia had a 12-point lead in the final minutes. Then Buddy Hield nearly happened again. Wow. Just wow. Amazing finish to the tournament’s most exciting game. West Virginia will face Kansas in the championship Saturday (6 p.m. ET, ESPN).
Defensive pressure on Hield changed the game: Huggins made a decision before this game started: He instructed his team to pressure Hield. That’s not new. Every coach announces the same command prior to a matchup against Oklahoma and its Wooden Award contender. And it never works.
West Virginia knows that. Hield finished a combined 14-for-32 as Oklahoma swept the Mountaineers during the regular season. So what would change Friday?
Huggins’ squad did a great job of denying Hield’s touches, and doubled and trapped when he did touch the ball. But the Mountaineers worked hard to make sure the rock never reached Hield’s hands, and he did not record a field goal in the game’s first 30 minutes. With 9 minutes, 46 seconds to play, he hit a 3-pointer from the corner — his first field goal after Daxter Miles Jr. and his teammates forced him into an 0-for-5 start. All of this after Hield recorded 39 points in a win over Iowa State in Thursday’s quarterfinals.
That’s what the Sooners proved Friday. And with the effort it took to pressure Hield for 40 minutes, the Mountaineers looked like an exhausted heavyweight in the 12th round during Friday’s final minutes. Yes, Hield was limited. But Spangler stepped up. And Cousins stepped up. And Christian James grew up. That 12-point lead that West Virginia had with seven minutes to play? James’ 3-pointer from the corner gave Oklahoma the 62-61 lead with 2:56 to go.
Oklahoma’s battles with Kansas and other Big 12 teams prepped the Sooners for the fight they encountered against West Virginia on Friday.
But the original theme returned when Jevon Carter stuck to Hield on a late possession and forced the senior to throw a pass to Cousins on the baseline. Cousins didn’t have any room to work. But all of that was secondary to the final scene.
Christian James is the future: The freshman who entered averaging 2.3 points per game put together the biggest game of his career and justified the preseason buzz. That 3-pointer from the corner was a veteran shot, the move you make when you’ve been in the game for some years. With Hield struggling, Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger needed someone to take on a larger role. James did that on his way to 13 points and five boards. Yes, Hield will leave after this season. Spangler and Cousins, too. But the Sooners discovered their future star on Friday.
West Virginia’s ceiling: In Friday’s first half, West Virginia made 54 percent of its 3-pointers. This is a team that entered the game ranked 252nd in the nation in 3-point shooting (32.9 percent). The Mountaineers force more turnovers per possession than any team in America. They press on more possessions than any team from a major conference. The defensive pressure tends to make opponents surrender. On back-to-back possessions midway through the game, West Virginia forced a pair of key turnovers against an Oklahoma team that couldn’t get its star the ball and struggled to push the ball past midcourt. If the Mountaineers shoot like this and continue to eat inside, what will stop them from a deep run in March? Bigger question: Do the Mountaineers have the energy to play this way against elite teams in the NCAA tournament for the next three weeks?
Daxter Miles Jr.: The MVP of this game — before James stole that honor — expended so much energy on the defensive end as he shadowed Hield. Carter was the offensive player of the game. But Miles’ defense on Hield was vital. No player in the country has been more impressive against Hield.