Kansas set for unlikely rubber match with West Virginia in Big 12 semifinals

Kansas head coach Bill Self pulls his team in during a timeout in the first half, Thursday, March 14, 2019 at Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo.

Kansas City, Mo. — It is not the rubber match many people were expecting to take place.

Regardless, Kansas and West Virginia will be seeking bragging rights for 2019 when the two teams square off during the semifinals of the Big 12 Tournament at 8:30 p.m. Friday night in the Sprint Center.

After splitting the two-game set in the regular season, the winner of the series-deciding contest will earn a trip to the Big 12 championship game. For the 10th-seeded Mountaineers, though, their main goal is to keep their season alive.

“We’re playing to get into the NCAA tournament is what we are doing,” WVU coach Bob Huggins said. “We had a meeting. We sat down and talked about and this is our chance. Two down, two to go.”

For the second consecutive day, West Virginia (14-19) found a way to pull off the upset after winning just four conference games in the regular season. The Mountaineers took down the Red Raiders, who won a share of the Big 12 regular-season title, by a 79-74 margin during the quarterfinals Thursday night.

“We are a different team now, I feel like we have a different mentality,” junior forward Lamont West said. “To be honest with you, we lost to almost every team we played in the Big 12. Every team we play is going to be payback.”

It marks the first time that WVU has won back-to-back games since December, and Bob Huggins’ squad is now one win away from its fourth-straight trip to the Big 12 championship game. Shortly after, Kansas (24-8) took care of business against Texas to set up the unlikely rubber match.

The two meetings between Kansas and West Virginia were nearly a month apart, but both went in favor of the home team.

In the first clash, Kansas suffered a late-game collapse to drop a 65-64 decision on Jan. 19. Despite controlling the second half and leading for more than 26 minutes, KU went from up 6 points to losing by 1 in the final moments.

Junior guard Jermaine Haley’s coast-to-coast layup with seven seconds to play served as the game winner. KU senior Lagerald Vick, who took a leave of absence in early February, ended up missing the game-winning attempt from 3-point range. It came one possession after Vick fired up a desperation airball toward the rim.

After the game, KU coach Bill Self took the blame for not calling a timeout to set up a better play on either possession. With the loss, the Jayhawks moved to 2-5 all time in Morgantown.

“They looked like a different team when we played them away,” Haley said.

The Jayhawks got their revenge with a 78-53 thrashing of the Mountaineers on Feb. 16 in Allen Fieldhouse.

Kansas led for all but one minute of the rematch, and even had a double-digit advantage over the final 30 minutes of the contest. Devon Dotson, K.J. Lawson, Dedric Lawson, David McCormack and Ochai Agbaji all scored in double figures in the lopsided win.

But the Jayhawks and Mountaineers are no strangers to meeting up in the Big 12 Tournament. In fact, two of the last three championship games have pitted these two teams together.

In both instances, Kansas came away with a double-digit win. In the 2016 title game, KU recorded an 81-71 victory over West Virginia. Former guard Malik Newman scored 20 points to lift Kansas to an 81-70 win during last year’s championship game.

“This is a new team coming into the tournament, we don’t have anything to lose,” Haley said. “We are playing with a chip on our shoulder.”

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