The Mountaineers led by 13 points with about 12 minutes left and a pair of top Hurricane players on the bench with four fouls. They had built momentum. They had an ACC foe on the ropes on the road. And with one switch, this to the typically ultra-reliable 1-3-1 defense, Miami’s Adrian Thomas hit threes in consecutive possessions.
“I was thinking we could do what we did a year ago and go to the 1-3-1 to stop penetration,” West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins said. “And they made shots. They started penetrating at will.”
The Hurricanes, short 6-10, 300-pound center Reggie Johnson because of foul trouble, somewhat inexplicably used a series of inside hoops to abuse West Virginia down low and turn a 54-41 deficit into a 66-64 lead inside four minutes. Malcolm Grant scored eight of his career-high 26 points during the push while head coach Frank Haith’s rotation of big men actually seemed to spur Miami as WVU allowed its knockout chance to slip away.
Johnson, who watched for much of the surge, finally reentered and pushed the ‘Canes to the lead. UM took immediate advantage by dumping him the ball for a couple buckets in as many possessions for a 73-69 edge into the final minute. WVU composed itself to get within two points three times in the final minute and actually had one final chance, but that was negated by a pair of Grant free throws and the failure to get off a final three-point shot to tie. Johnson finished with 14 points.
It was just the fourth loss in 81 games under Huggins when West Virginia led by 10 or more points.
“We bailed them out. We overran the ball in the post. We didn’t get deep (on offense),” Huggins said. “We didn’t do the right things. They made shots and we didn’t and they took care of the ball and we didn’t. They got shots and we didn’t.”
It was a shocking fall in a game the Mountaineers seemed to be controlling for much of the middle portions. After leading 35-333 at the half, West Virginia (5-2) had leads of 10, 112 and the game-high 13 over the first six minutes of the second period. They had Johnson and Julian Gamble on the bench with four fouls. But, when it counted, there wasn’t enough execution to offset the myriad of mistakes.
“We don’t have any toughness,” Huggins said. “That’s my fault. I have to fix it. … We play in the best league in America? Are those guys better than (UConn’s) Kemba Walker? (Villanova’s) Corey Fisher? If we can’t guard them, we’re going to have a hard time guarding in our league.”
West Virginia had four players in double-figures, led by Truck Bryant’s 20 with eight-of-eight shooting from the line. Casey Mitchell added 18. The Mountaineers finished with advantages in rebounding and made 21 of 24 from the line. But, along with the lack of execution, WVU missed 16 of 22 threes while giving Miami numerous open looks from behind the arc as the Hurricanes made eight of 16 for 50 percent.
No team scored more than six consecutive points, the Mountaineers doing it first when they used buckets from Jones and Mazzulla and a pair of Flowers free throws to push a one-point edge to a 29-22 lead with five minutes left. As it had twice before, Miami again rallied from down seven to get within one at 29-28 before the teams played evenly over the final three minutes to the half. WVU made 12 of its first 13 free throws in the period to offset missing eight of nine threes.
“We talked about the game plan for three days,” Huggins said. “Then we don’t do it. We have three games before the Big East? We better win some, I know that.”