KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — West Virginia has made a habit of reaching the Big 12 Tournament title game lately.
Now, the Mountaineers will try to end the habit of losing it.
Daxter Miles Jr. scored 22 points and Jevon Carter added 17, and the tournament’s No. 3 seed advanced to its third straight championship game Friday night when Texas Tech’s Niem Stevenson missed a half-court heave at the buzzer to give West Virginia a 66-63 victory over the No. 14 Red Raiders.
The challenge awaiting Saturday night: ninth-ranked Kansas.
“It means everything at this point,” Miles said. “We just have to be ready.”
West Virginia (24-9) fell to the Jayhawks in the Big 12 title game two years ago and lost to Iowa State last year. The Mountaineers haven’t won a postseason conference title since 2010, when they were still members of the Big East and the games were played at Madison Square Garden.
“It’s a championship game and that’s all the motivation we need,” Carter said. “It’s another game, another win we can get. But it’s not about what happened in the past, it’s about what happens tomorrow. We’re going to come fighting and we’ll see what happens.”
Miles had a chance to clinch Friday night’s semifinal from the foul line with 6 seconds left, but he only made the first of two free throws. Texas Tech (24-9) corralled the rebound but struggled to get the ball up court, and Stevenson resorted to a half-court shot to tie the game.
It bounced harmlessly off the rim, sending the Red Raiders home.
Jarrett Culver had 16 points for Texas Tech, which led 57-56 with 4 minutes to go but was unable to hang on. Keenan Evans added 13 points, but the star guard was 5 of 14 from the field, and missed two crucial free throws and a tightly contested 3-pointer in the final 90 seconds.
“We’ve got a lot of respect for them,” Red Raiders coach Chris Beard said. “It was kind of an ugly game, but West Virginia makes you play ugly with their toughness and physicality.”
Indeed, their matchup was precisely the defensive slobber-knocker everyone expected.
West Virginia leaned on its frenetic, full-court press to cause problems and create turnovers, just like the Mountaineers did in their quarterfinal win over Baylor. Texas Tech leaned on its gritty, in-your-face half-court defense to force West Virginia into a bushel of misses.
The Mountaineers led 27-26 at halftime.
At that point, it was a wonder anybody in Sprint Center was still awake.
The reality is many fans had left after Kansas beat Kansas State in the earlier semifinal. But those that remained were treated to a game that slowly built in intensity, especially as West Virginia and Texas Tech remained unable to create separation until midway through the second half.
That’s when Miles and Carter, the veteran guards who have been such stalwarts for West Virginia over the years, began playing H-O-R-S-E against each other from beyond the 3-point line.
Their barrage allowed the Mountaineers to slowly build a 54-48 lead at the under-8 timeout.
Texas Tech roared back with nine straight points to swipe the lead away, setting up a frantic push to the finish — and eventually, a wild celebration on the West Virginia bench.
“It was a tough loss for us. We have more field goals, we outrebound them, we have low turnover totals on a one-day prep but we don’t win the game,” Bears said. “Letting their two best guards get loose for that many 3-ponit shots, there has to be some defensive mistakes that we have to own, but in a lot of ways we ran out of time. We didn’t get beat.”
WHAT TO CHANGE
The Mountaineers were swept by Kansas in the regular season, losing 71-66 in Morgantown and 77-69 in Lawrence. Asked what needs to change, coach Bob Huggins replied: “Score more points than them. I don’t know. We played pretty well, they played pretty well. Two pretty well-played games. So I don’t know. Make another shot, maybe. Get a free throw.”
West Virginia was beaten on the boards, committed 21 fouls and struggled for long stretches. But the Mountaineers were careful with the ball, showed some of Huggins’ trademark toughness and managed to make the plays that mattered.
Texas Tech had plenty of chances to regain the lead in the final minutes, but four missed free throws and poor execution in crunch time spoiled a solid defensive performance.
West Virginia prepares for the Big 12 title game against Kansas.
Texas Tech heads back to Lubbock to await Selection Sunday.
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