KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) About three weeks ago, West Virginia coach Bob Huggins began fiddling with a 1-3-1 zone defense.
Kansas State wishes he never got that idea.
After struggling to contain the Wildcats’ penetration all night, Huggins slapped the zone on in the closing minutes of the Big 12 Tournament semifinals. The resulting defensive stops got the Mountaineers back in the game, and Esa Ahmad provided the go-ahead free throw with 20.2 seconds left.
More stingy defense on the Wildcats’ Kamau Stokes kept him from getting off a decent look as time expired Friday night, and the Mountaineers escaped for a hard-earned 51-50 victory.
They’ll play No. 23 Iowa State in Saturday night’s championship game.
“We didn’t do very good job on our man (defense),” Huggins said. “We decided to try a little bit of the 1-3-1 – I’m not very smart, but I’m smart enough when it works keep doing it.”
The sixth-seeded Wildcats (20-13) mostly controlled the game until Tarik Phillip tied it with a 3-pointer with 1:41 to go. Kansas State came up empty at the other end, and Ahmad was fouled in a scramble for a rebound moments later, clanking his first free throw before making his second.
The Wildcats brought the ball up court and called timeout with 10.2 seconds left.
After they inbounded to Stokes, he headed across to the right wing, where he inexplicably picked up his dribble. Tightly guarded as time ran out, he heaved a shot that hit off the rim.
“West Virginia just played good defense at the end of the game. We didn’t make the play,” Stokes said, “and just credit them for playing defense.”
Ahmad finished with 15 points and 10 rebounds, and Phillip had 13 points to help the second-seeded Mountaineers (26-7) reach the final for the second straight year. They are going for their first conference tournament title since the Big East in 2010.
Wesley Iwundu had 13 points and Stokes finished with 10 for the Wildcats, who can only hope their quarterfinal win over No. 9 Baylor will be enough to get them into the NCAA Tournament.
“We play in the best league in the country. We play the best teams in the country we’ve beaten them. We played the other ones close,” Kansas State coach Bruce Weber said. “It’s just disappointing we couldn’t win to get in the championship game.”
The way the first half played out was reflected on the benches.
The Wildcats were hustling up and down the floor, skinning knees while diving for loose balls and then laughing about it afterward. On the sideline, Weber was hopping up and down like mad, a fountain of encouragement in the din of an arena packed with purple-clad fans.
Meanwhile, the Mountaineers were openly frustrated every time a shot clanked off the iron or a whistle blew for a foul. On their sideline, Huggins spent the half ripping into everyone from his own players to the officials, often pointing out to them the foul disparity.
The Wildcats went to the line 10 times in the first half. West Virginia never did.
The sum of all that was a first half dominated by the Kansas State defense. It held West Virginia to 6-for-32 shooting and was the biggest reason the Wildcats led 25-16 at the break.
The Wildcats kept the Mountaineers at arm’s length most of the second half, but the Press Virginia defense finally started to force turnovers. And when Kansas State began struggling against the zone, the Mountaineers seized an opening and clawed back to tie the game.
Then their veteran poise allowed them to make the plays that mattered in the final minute.
“We’re always in the game,” Phillip said. “It’s just because of the style that we play, we create turnovers and stuff like that, but we’re always in games.”
Kansas State split with West Virginia in the regular season and went 2-1 against Baylor, so there are some marquee wins on its NCAA Tournament resume. But the Wildcats could have avoided a tense wait on Selection Sunday had they managed to put this one away.
West Virginia survived despite a lousy performance from star guard Jevon Carter, who went 1 for 12 from the field and 1 for 7 from beyond the arc. The Mountaineers also were dominated in the paint, even though they had a 44-35 rebounding advantage.
Kansas State heads west on I-70 back to Manhattan to await its NCAA Tournament fate.
West Virginia gets ready for the Cyclones on Saturday night.