Casey Mitchell recorded his best shooting night since returning from his second suspension of the year, but it wasn't nearly enough to overcome a hideous display in other aspects of the game as the Mountaineers bumbled away a chance to move up in the Big East conference standings.
Mitchell finished 8-14 from the field, including 7-12 from 3-point range to help keep WVU in the game. Three of those came in the first half, and paired with four others from Truck Bryant, John Flowers and Dalton Pepper, staked the Mountaineers to a 30-26 lead at the half.
In the second half, Mitchell continued his excellent shooting, and that was all that kept the game from becoming a blowout. Mitchell hit a pair of threes to halt Syracuse runs and made another to cut the Orange lead to two at 44-42, but that was as close as the Mountaineers would get in the final 20 minutes.
Mitchell had four rebounds but also turned the ball over five times.
The first rule of transition defense is to stop the ball. The second rule is to sprint back so the opponent doesn't beat you down the court with more players than can be defended. West Virginia failed miserably at both against Syracuse, and as a result the Orange scored nine of their first 12 points without setting up their offense. As a team that has struggled in the halfcourt to score, the points were a godsend, and helped them to stay within four points of the Mountaineers at the break.
Time and again on fast breaks, WVU allowed opposing ballhandlers to drive into the lane -- sometimes all the way to the basket. That gave Syracuse a number of open and uncontested looks at the hoop, and they were quick to take advantage of them. Syracuse scored 19 points on fast break chances, as opposed to none for the Mountaineers.
West Virginia allowed Syracuse to shoot 52% from the field in the second half -- and as bad as that is, it marked an improvement from the last three games. WVU allowed Villanova (70%), Pitt (60.7%) and DePaul (62.5%) to light up the nets in the second half, and although the Orange didn't quite approach that level, they did make eight of their first nine shots from the field out of the locker room to turn that 30-26 deficit into a 51-42 lead.
Head coach Bob Huggins termed his team's second half defense "the worst ever" in his head coaching career, and it would be hard to argue with him. Over the last four games, WVU has allowed guards to penetrate with the ball and frontcourt foes to dominate on the boards. Unless the Mountaineers can figure out a way to turn up the defensive intensity in the second half, losses are going to continue to mount.
Bad decisions continued to haunt West Virginia, and they came from all angles. Every guard threw at least two bad passes into the post, where players such as Deniz Kilicli and Kevin Jones were unable to handle them. Even passes that found their intended targets often pulled the recipients out of scoring position. Defensively, WVU played the high ball screen poorly in the second half, yielding two dunks and two lay-ups when WVU failed to rotate or hedge and recover effectively. West Virginia's best defender fouled an off-balance 3-point shooter with one second left on the shot clock. Even Huggins got into the act, earning a technical foul and yielding two points when the Mountaineers trailed by just three in the second half.
A complete list of the mental and physical errors committed by the Mountaineers in the game would add several pages to the official stat book, and unfortunately, these are the items that really made the difference in this game, not to mention several other losses this year. WVU can't shoot, and knows it can't shoot, but it can overcome that. It can overcome a lack of natural athletic ability. But it simply cannot overcome repetitive poor decisions, turnovers, and a lack of basketball IQ. That was again in evidence in the loss to Syracuse, and if it continues, it will be the reason the Mountaineers miss a trip to the NCAA tournament.