Event staff sat just behind the first row of photographers on the court, planning their move as the final minute ticked off the clock and Texas Tech students would rush the court to celebrate a win over No. 6 West Virginia.
“Just so you guys know, you’re right in the path if the students rush the court,” a staffer told the photographers with the Red Raiders holding onto a four-point lead.
As it turned out, the only students rushing the court would be the student-athletes who had traveled from Morgantown, West Virginia.
With 1:10 left, trailing by four, Tarik Phillip took over.
It started with a 3-pointer from the left wing, the same place where the junior guard drained a jumper late in the action against Buffalo to make sure the Mountaineers advanced in the NCAA Tournament last year.
“Same corner. Same corner,” Jaysean Paige said of the shot, before pointing out one clear difference between Saturday’s and the one against Buffalo. “Well, Juwan didn’t pass it to him, obviously, I gave him a good look, he stepped into it and knocked it down. Coach [Bob Huggins] said if we get step in shots, there’s a better chance of them going in, so he stepped in and knocked it down.”
On Texas Tech’s next possession, Justin Gray tried creating space in the post and instead had Phillip poke the ball away and dribble the length of the court, driving past Zach Smith and scooping it off the glass for the bucket and the foul.
Two plays. Six points. Thirty seconds. WVU lead.
“Coach has been telling us we’ve got to help each other all the time,” Phillip said after the game. “For like the past three weeks, Coach has been telling us we’ve got to help the helper, help each other if somebody gets beat. I was just following Coach’s instructions. He told me to help, I helped and I ended up getting a steal.”
Tech got the ball back with 21 seconds remaining. Toddrick Gotcher shot a 3-pointer that hit off the back iron, Gray got the rebound and tried sending out to midcourt where both Keenan Evans and WVU’s Daxter Miles were waiting. Miles hit the floor and came away with the ball.
He looked up, and there was Tarik Phillip. Who else?
Phillip handled the rest, throwing down an exclamation point dunk, completing the comeback with the final eight points of the contest, an 80-76 win.
“At the beginning of the game, I think I had two turnovers back to back or somebody poked it out from behind me,” Phillip, who finished with three steals to go along with his three early turnovers, said. “Just mental lapses that Coach has been telling us about in practice and in games. I just tried to clean it up a little bit coming down to the end and you seen the outcome.”
Notice a theme in each of the three previous quotes from both Phillip and Paige?
Coach this, Coach that. Each of the guards continued to reference ideas that came from Huggins, this just a few days after Huggins himself said that the team had been flat and unresponsive in practice.
He worried that he may not know how to connect with them, to teach them through a couple of losses. He won’t be happy with about 39 minutes of Saturday’s game, but he should be pleased to know that those lessons he gives are not falling on deaf ears.
Huggins, for his part, needed to trust that someone on his roster would give the Mountaineers the lift they required in the final moments and he certainly came away pleased with what Phillip displayed.
“Tarik’s got a lot of courage and he has a tendency to make plays to win games,” Huggins said. “You kind of want guys that make plays to win games in at the end of games.”
That quote came in response to a question of what Huggins saw from his junior that had him play 28 minutes to starter Jevon Carter’s 12. The main reason was that Carter was in foul trouble, but he picked up his fourth foul with 1:33 remaining and if he was the guy Huggins saw best fit to lead the comeback, he could have stayed in the lineup.
Instead, it was Phillip’s day to tally a career-high 20 points. It was Paige’s day to score a game-high 22. It was West Virginia’s day to deny Texas Tech’s attempt to send the Mountaineers back to snowy Morgantown with a third-straight loss.
“That just shows our resilience,” Phillip said. “We knew this was a must-win, so we came in and we tried to leave it all on the floor.”
And in doing so, they left those court-storming fans off of the floor.