There was an electric atmosphere early in the WVU Coliseum Monday night as the West Virginia Mountaineers took on the 1/2 ranked Kansas Jayhawks.
Led by their talent-laden squad, the Jawhawks entered the Coliseum looking for a big victory with little regard to the struggling Mountaineer squad. But an energized Bob Huggins team gave the Jayhawks all they could ask for, falling in the final minutes en route to a 61-56 defeat.
It was a red-hot start for Kansas to open up Monday's contest, as the Jayhawks rattled off 10 quick points in the first four minutes to take an early lead. Led by back-to-back threes from All-American candidates Elijah Johnson and Ben McLemore, the Jayhawks utilized superior shooting and offensive strategy to push towards an early advantage.
For the Mountaineers, it was yet another ugly performance from the get-go. It would take West Virginia 7:30 before recording their first field goal of the game, with a Kilicli hook.
The Mountaineers would tack on another three points thanks to a mid-range shot from Jabarie Hinds and Juwan Staten free throw, but the score would still reflect a comfortable 16-7 Kansas lead at the second media timeout.
Kansas would continue to pour it on West Virginia coming out of the timeout, with a Johnson steal off the inbounds pass leading to a break-away slam by Travis Releford extending their lead.
The Jayhawks would pull out to a 22-9 advantage before the Mountaineers broke out their big gun - Kevin Noreen. The sophomore big man, who maintains a hidden knack for the long ball, connected from beyond the arc in the waning seconds of the shot clock, helping put the Mountaineers in double figures at the under 8:00 media timeout.
While the trademarked Noreen three has typically sparked runs for the Mountaineers this season, there was little success for the Mountaineers this time around. The Jayhawks would rack off six-straight points in a 30 second span, forcing a West Virginia timeout.
But the Mountaineers would finally find some life exiting the timeout. Playing their most aggressive defense of the game, the Mountaineers forced four Kansas turnovers in a two minute span, and capitalizing on the offensive end.
A trio of baskets by Aaric Murray and a jumper from Hinds pulled the Mountaineers to within eight points at the final media timeout of the half.
Both teams exchanged offensive streaks throughout the remainder of the half, with West Virginia ultimately holding their own with the top-ranked Jayhawks. The Mountaineers managed to cut the once 15 point deficit to a mere seven points.
A couple controversial calls late in the half extended Kansas' lead to double-digits once again. But a Hinds steal from the front court, and coast-to-coast layup, with seconds remaining helped push the Mountaineers back to within eight at the half.
The Mountaineers would have a difficult time getting the crowd back into the action coming out of the half after an impressive performance from the Red Panda acrobat.
But it would not take long before the crowd escaped from the halftime entertainment high, as the Mountaineers opened up with an inspired performance from Aaric Murray an Dominique Rutledge. A trio of offensive rebounds from Rutledge helped set up an eventual three by Murray to cut West Virginia's deficit to seven.
On the other end of the court, it would not take long for Murray to make his presence felt, quickly stealing an errant Kansas pass. A Gary Browne mid-range jumper would close the gap to a mere five points, the smallest deficit for the Mountaineers since the 17:37 mark of the first half.
And it would continue to shrink from there. Another three point basket by Murray, coupled shortly thereafter by a front court steal and slam from Browne, cut Kansas' lead to two points with just under 15:00 remaining.
Both teams would trade punches for the next three minutes, with Staten leading the charge for the Mountaineers with a pair of layups. The surge of play from West Virginia kept them within two of Kansas at the under 12:00 media timeout.
Staten would continue to bear the brunt of West Virginia's offense coming out of the timeout, nailing what appeared to be his first three pointer of the season to put West Virginia down by one. But after further review from the referees, his feet were determined to be on the line, pulling the Mountaineers to within two once again.
But a pair of points would be as close as the Mountaineers would get.. Led by Ben McLemore, the Jayhawks would put together a brisk 7-0 run, pushing their lead back to nine with just over seven minutes left.
Over the next three minute span, the Jayhawks did everything they could to disrupt West Virginia's offensive gameplan, playing aggressive defensive set and holding the Mountaineers to just four points prior to the final media timeout.
With a seven point deficit exiting the timeout, the Mountaineers would attempt to speed up their game on offense with little success. Despite their valiant effort near the end, the once hot Mountaineers could not make a shot against the smothering Kansas defense, as the Jayhawks ran down the clock for victory.
Final score: Kansas 61, West Virginia 56.
The Mountaineers were led in scoring Monday night by Aaric Murray, who scored 17 points coming off the bench. Joining Murray in double figures was Juwan Staten with 14 points on the night.
West Virginia will play again on the road Saturday against Texas Tech. Tipoff is set for 1:30.