The Mountaineers led by double digits for much of the contest and held a lead of seven points with 5:52 left when Dominique Rutledge scored on a putback to make it 71-64.
But Louisville made a desperate comeback, finishing the game on a 13-3 run to win 77-74 at the Coliseum.
It was WVU’s fifth loss in its last six games, moving the hosts to under .500 in Big East play at 6-7 in the league (16-10 overall) and leaving West Virginia in a precarious situation if it hopes to make the NCAA Tournament, as only five regular season games remain.
“We’ve just got to keep on fighting at this point,” senior Kevin Jones said, hanging his head. “That’s the only thing that’s going to keep us alive.”
It was a deflating loss for the Mountaineers, but only the latest one in what has been a horrific three weeks for Bob Huggins’ team, which was tied for second place in the Big East after a 77-74 overtime win against Cincinnati on Jan. 21.
The Cardinals (20-5, 8-4) started their decisive run when Wayne Blackshear -- a surprise presence, who had sat out the entire season due to injury before Saturday -- scored a layup when he beat Truck Bryant on a backcut to make it 71-66.
Russ Smith made a pair of free throws, and after an empty WVU possession, Kyle Kuric hit a game-tying 3-pointer with 2:38 left. Immediately, Blackshear stole the inbounds pass from Bryant (who fell on the play; West Virginia’s fans and bench argued he was pushed) and handed off to Smith for a layup. Louisville had a 73-71 lead, its first since the score was 20-18 in the early stages.
Player of the Game
U of L’s pressure defense was far more effective in the latter stages, something Huggins said may not have been just by happenstance.
“I think when you’re allowed to play that way, it’s a great strategy,” Huggins said, clearly frustrated with officiating. “That’s what I think.”
Jones, who put in another heroic performance in another losing effort, missed a 3-pointer on the other end. The Cards’ Chris Smith made a pair of foul shots to make it a two-possession game at 75-71.
But Jones wasn’t done yet. He made a putback while being pushed in the back by Russ Smith, thrilling the 11,254 in attendance. The senior canned the bonus free throw to get his team within a point, and Huggins switched to a 1-3-1 zone defense on Louisville’s possession. It worked, as Kuric missed a 3-pointer.
WVU had possession but no timeouts to set something up. It showed, as freshman guard Gary Browne tried to fit a pass in a tight window to Jones, but it was picked off by Kuric, who then made a pair of free throws with 5.5 seconds left.
Bryant had a look at a 3-pointer that would have sent the game to overtime, but he airballed the shot at the buzzer. Huggins, frustrated as the fans were with the officiating, was restrained by transfer center Aaric Murray as the horn sounded, lest the coach stalk after the referees.
“We gave them too many chances,” Huggins said. “Well, let me rephrase that: they were given too many chances.”
It was West Virginia that took advantage of its opportunities early, racing out to a lead of as many as 13 points in the first half and holding their first halftime lead in nearly a month at 44-37.
But things changed even before the buzzer, as Deniz Kilicli -- who had dominated play in the first half and scored 15 points in 16 minutes -- picked up his second and third fouls simultaneously. After being whistled for the personal, he tossed the ball into the air in frustration, drawing a technical foul.
Kilicli played only six minutes in the second half and fouled out late.
“Today, I didn’t set a good example either. It was stupid stuff,” the junior said.
Louisville took advantage, winning the rebounding battle in the second half after WVU dominated that category 27-15 in the opening 20 minutes.
Jones finished with 22 points and 11 rebounds. He added four assists without committing a turnover. Kilicli added 17, while Bryant had 13 despite 3-of-17 shooting from the field.
The Cards had five players in double figures, led by Kuric with 17 points.
If West Virginia is to climb out of the hole it has dug for itself, it will have to do so on the road. Its next two games are at Pittsburgh on Thursday and at Notre Dame on Feb. 22.