If not for some better-than-average outside shooting, this one could have been ugly. Bob Huggins' club was only 6-of-25 (24 percent) from inside the 3-point arc, and it had only four points in the paint. Casey Mitchell's 23 points were a large reason why the contest was close for as long as it was.
But when the senior shooting guard wasn't making one of his seven 3-pointers, things were typically going poorly for the Mountaineers. Taking away Mitchell and senior forward John Flowers (who had 10 points on 4-of-7 shooting), West Virginia shot only 19.2 percent (5-of-26) from the field.
"They're open. They were wide open," Huggins told the Mountaineer Sports Network afterwards. "We just don't make them."
"We just can't overcome that. We can't overcome Kevin [Jones] going 2-for-8 with five rebounds. They get 12 offensive rebounds. We get nine. We get outrebounded by seven. We turn it over more than they do. They have seven more [field goal] shots and shoot seven more free throws. We're not going to win [when those things happen]. It's simple."
But perhaps the more alarming letdown was on the defensive end, where WVU was outclassed again in the second half against a Big East opponent.
Syracuse (21-6, 8-6) shot 52.2 percent from the field in the final 20 minutes, becoming the fourth-straight Mountaineer opponent to hit more than half of its field goals in the second half. Three of those teams have shot better than 60 percent in the final period.
"We gave up 52 percent in the second half," Huggins said, clearly bemused in looking at the box score. "In our last seven losses now, that's about what we're giving up. I've never had a team do that. Not when we were bad did we ever do that. We at least guarded. But we're not doing a very good job -- not doing a very consistent job, I guess."
Indeed, on their first four possessions of the second half, the Orange scored 12 points -- hitting two 3-pointers and making bonus free throws after being fouled on another pair of field goals inside the arc. That turned what was a 30-26 halftime lead for West Virginia into a 38-35 advantage for SU.
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Just as it appeared things would get out of hand, Mitchell did his part to keep the Mountaineers in contention, drilling his fourth 3-pointer to make it 41-38. His fifth trifecta would bring his team back within two points at 44-42, and his sixth made it 51-45 after the Orange had pulled out to a nine-point lead and were threatening to blow things open near the midpoint of the second half.
Point guard Joe Mazzulla followed that up with a pair of free throws, and Jones hit one of his two field goals to make it a 7-0 WVU run and a 51-49 game with 8:28 remaining.
But one last Mitchell 3-pointer with 5:20 left would be all the offense the visitors could muster the rest of the way. In the interim, the ‘Cuse had reeled off another six straight points, and they added another six after Mitchell's last trifecta to earn the double-digit win.
West Virginia (16-9, 7-6) inched closer to the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble with the loss. It still has lofty RPI and strength of schedule rankings on its side that should help come Selection Sunday, but for the first time all season, Huggins sounded unsure as to whether or not his team will manage to crack the field of 68.
"I don't know ... I talked to [longtime Syracuse assistant coach] Bernie Fine before the game and he said, ‘Do you realize we were 10-6 in the league and didn't get in one year?'" Huggins said. "They were 7-3 down the stretch. We're now 4-5 down the stretch. And they beat the No. 2-ranked team in the country like they stole something and still didn't get in.
"I honestly don't know. I know this: we need to do things right more consistently and take care of ourselves, which is what I told [the players] before the game. Why can't we just take care of ourselves?"
In the first half, it looked as though they might. WVU got the shots it wanted against the Orange's vaunted 2-3 zone defense early and, for once, it hit them. The Mountaineers made seven of their first 13 3-pointers and led what had been a closely-contested contest 30-26 at the intermission.
Mitchell had 11 points by halftime and had figured prominently into that early lead. But he wasn't immune to struggles himself, turning the ball over five times and failing to assist on a single made basket for a teammate.
Ditto for Deniz Kilicli, who was nearly a hero against a highly-ranked Pitt team in Morgantown one week prior. But unlike that night, when he scored a career-high 19 points, the sophomore center couldn't find his touch against SU, going 1-of-7 from the field and scoring only three points.
"The truth is our two best offensive players are our two worst defenders. And they are our worst passers," Huggins said of Kilicli and Mitchell. "I'll bet you if you look at turnovers per possession, our two best scorers lead in [committing] turnovers per possession. And they did it tonight.
"Honestly, everybody is more talented than we are. The higher-level teams we have [in the Big East] are more talented than we are. We put a couple guys on the floor that can't score, so we're essentially playing five against three in a lot of instances, and [opponents] are not. And that's okay. We can compensate if we do the right things. But we have to do the right things, and we have to do them on a consistent basis. But at this point, we haven't done that."
Again, things get little easier for WVU, which will return to the Coliseum and prepare for the rest of the week for a showdown with No. 8 Notre Dame on Saturday. The Irish, winners of seven straight Big East games, will give the Mountaineers yet another shot to bolster their NCAA Tournament resume as the season winds down.