The Mountaineers, the No. 10 seed in the East Regional, didn’t look worthy of the at-large bid they received to the NCAA Tournament. Gonzaga (26-6) built a lead of as many as 20 points in the first half and steamrolled its way to a 77-54 win at Consol Energy Center on Thursday night.
The score only went so far in reflecting just how dominant the No. 7 seed Bulldogs were. They controlled the game almost from the opening tip. WVU’s only lead came at 2-0 on a basket by Aaron Brown.
It was all downhill from there for the Mountaineers (19-14). They allowed the Zags to shoot 50 percent from the field in the first half, including 60 percent from 3-point range, in a torrid first half. It only got better for the Bulldogs from there, as they shot 63.6 percent in the second half.
“You have to make people uncomfortable,” coach Bob Huggins said. “They've got skilled guys. You try to take their tendencies away. We didn't do as good a job. The truth of the matter is it's kind of a microcosm of our season.
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“This is the worst defensive team I've ever had in 30 years. We don't get to help, we don't get to loose balls. We don't do the things we've done for years and years and years.”
West Virginia, conversely, could scarcely find the basket. It made only 23.1 percent of its shots, with the roster other than Kevin Jones making only 15.8 percent of its shots, as the Bulldogs’ lead ballooned.
“They played a heck of a game on both ends of the court,” Jones said. “They did a good job of helping down on me. My teammates weren't able to hit open shots. That's just been the story of our year this whole year.”
It was 40-22 as the teams headed to the locker room for halftime, and the thousands of WVU partisans who made the short trip up I-79 from Morgantown were silenced, while blue-clad Gonzaga fans cheered wildly.
There was no second half rally. The Zags pushed the lead to as many as 26, and even Huggins seemed to concede defeat in the early minutes of the period, his typically fiery sideline demeanor giving way to a look of bemusement.
“There was always a feeling of frustration throughout the whole game,” Jones said. “It was definitely desperation during the second half. We were down by so many points. We weren't playing defense. They came out tougher, more aggressive, more energized than we were. You see the result of it.
“They were the better team.”
Perhaps this should have been expected. The Mountaineers entered the NCAA Tournament losers of eight of their last 12 games and struggling on both ends of the floor.
But West Virginia had ugly games throughout the season. It had rarely quit -- especially so early -- like it did in this one.
For the Mountaineers, Jones ended his career and a brilliant senior season with a 13-point, four-rebound performance.
“I matured as a man on and off the court,” Jones said of his WVU career. “Coach Huggins taught me a lot, the coaching staff. I just benefited a whole bunch from coming back this year. Hopefully, it's stuff I can take with me to the next level, whatever level that may be. I'm very grateful for that.”
Deniz Kilicli added 10 points, while Gary Browne scored a team-high 15 -- 10 of which came at the free throw line.
The Zags’ balanced scoring paced their dominant effort. Robert Sacre and Gary Bell, Jr., scored 14 each, while Kevin Pangos added 13 and Elias Harris netted 10. All but one of the 11 Gonzaga players who saw action scored.
Sacre made good on his insistence the Bulldogs would take the physical fight to WVU. In fact, the Mountaineers had a quote from Sacre written for motivational purposes on the dry erase board in their locker room: “Can’t wait to play West Virginia and show them how physical Gonzaga and the WCC are.” The tactic apparently didn’t work.
West Virginia’s 19 wins are the program’s fewest in a season since 2004, when then-coach John Beilein, in his second season, led the Mountaineers to the NIT with a 17-14 record. WVU was only two years removed from an 8-20 campaign at that point.
It was nearly Huggins’ worst NCAA Tournament loss of his career, just behind a 24-point setback Cincinnati suffered at the hands of Illinois in 2004.