The Mountaineers have been good enough to get by with shaky rebounding in some games, poor defense in others and shaky free throw shooting in still more, but they couldn't overcome a combination of all three as they dropped their last game in San Juan. West Virginia made just 12 of its 23 shots from the free throw line, was outrebounded 37-36 and allowed the Gophers far too easy access to the lane in the loss. The rebounding gap, which approached double digits midway through the contest, was narrowed late as WVU put everything it had into attacking the offensive boards, but Minnesota matched it with 23 second chance points and dominance in the lane to preserve the win.
“You can't go 12-23 from the foul line and play as poorly in other areas as what we did and win,” head coach bob Huggins said. “We haven't guarded the ball screen well. We didn't run offense or pass the ball well, and we had a couple of guys that didn't play with the kind of enthusiasm we are used to.
“We have to put time in. We got some guys with some bad mechanics that have to be mentally tough enough to fix it and stay with what was fixed,” he said of WVU's free throw woes. “It's like the plague. When one guy catches it the next guy gets it. But we'll get it fixed.”
In the early going, the shooting of Casey Mitchell that propelled the Mountaineers to another strong start. The junior college transfer hit his first six shots, including four 3-pointers, to help West Virginia jump out to a 20-11 lead. From that point on, however, Minnesota's height advantage began to tell. The taller Gophers dominated the backboards and paint, scoring repeatedly on close-in shots to cut into West Virginia's lead. A 12-2 run erased the advantage, giving the Gophers a 23-22 advantage, which they preserved down the stretch for a 33-32 halftime lead. Mitchell hit another shot down the stretch, giving him 18 first-half points, but no other Mountaineer had more than four.
West Virginia was also hurt by a disparity in foul calls, fueled by Minnesota's ability to get the ball inside. The Gophers utilized their height advantage to the maximum. They posted up deep in the lane and got easy passes from the perimeter, and the resulting short shots helped them erase WVU's early lead. Minnesota was also quicker to the ball, and got the majority of loose balls and “50-50” chances.
In the second half, Minnesota extended its lead early, moving out to an eight-point margin at 50-42 before West Virginia rallied with a lineup it hasn't used all year. Apparently disgusted with WVU's effort and production on the boards, head coach Bob Huggins put Joe Mazzulla, Jonnie West, Dalton Pepper, Deniz Kilicli and Kevin Noreen on the floor, and the makeshift group responded with points from all five players to forge a tie at 53-all.
“The guy that got us back in the game was Kevin Noreen,” Huggins said. “He got his hands on balls and kept the ball alive and scored. He ran out of gas, but he battled. I put him in because I was so upset with other guys and their effort. When he did that he lit a fire under some of those other guys.”
West Virginia continued to ride that momentum as Dalton Pepper hit a banked 3-pointer to push WVU in front at 56-55, and from there on out the contest was a back and forth affair until a 6-0 run by Minnesota gave them a four-point lead at 64-60. West Virginia tried to battle back, but missed free throws again reared their ugly head. On one particularly glaring possession, Kilicli missed two free throws after getting fouled on a shot following an offensive rebound, and then Jones snared the second miss and was fouled, but managed to make just one of his two tries.
“Deniz made a great effort and K.J. Made a great effort, and we're 1-4 with two great efforts. It just breaks your back,” Huggins lamented. “I've told my guys in the past, just throw it out of bounds instead, and at least we can get our defense set. It's frustrating. You come here to win, and we had every opportunity to do so.”
Huggins was also less than pleased with the inconsistent nature of the officiating. He did not complain about the disparity in fouls, but rather with the overall manner in which the games were called.
“I'm all for whatever they want to do, but call it all the time,” he said. “Don't let guys jump over backs on one end, and on the other end let it go. I don't care what the rules are, just let them call it all the time. But if you don't do the same thing all the time it's hard for guys to adjust.”
WVU was unable to make that adjustment, but it did steady itself enough to forge two more ties in the late going. Kevin Jones hit a 3-pointer to tie the game at 68-all, and Casey Mitchell canned a pair of free throws to knot the sore at 70. However, Blake Hoffarber hit the last of his four second half threes to give the Golden Gophers a 73-70 lead. West Virginia had chances to tie, but neither Mitchell nor Kevin Jones were able to hit long range shots in the closing minute.
Mitchell was WVU's lone double-figure scorer with 27 points. Kevin Jones, limited to 18 minutes due to foul trouble, was next with nine. Kilicli had ten rebounds to pace WVU's rebounding effort. Mitchell was named to the all-tournament team, while Jones and Truck Bryant, despite being held scoreless in the championship game, were accorded honorable mention honors.
West Virginia returns to action in Charleston against VMI on Saturday, Nov. 27.