Battling From Behind

Battling From Behind

West Virginia got stellar performances from Juwan Staten and Eron Harris on Wednesday, but it wasn't enough to overcome Wisconsin's balance in a 70-63 loss in the finals of the Cancun Challenge.

Harris scored 27 points on the strength of a career-best seven three-pointers, and Staten added 18 while playing another excellent floor game (six rebounds, six assists, two blocks), but the Badgers' four players in double figures proved too much to overcome. So too were two Mountaineer bugaboos -- free throw shooting and rebounding -- that proved crucial to the final score.

The early going was back and forth, and following a Staten jumper WVU trailed by just one at 14-13 with 11:32 to go in the first half. At that point Wisconsin ripped off a 16-0 run to take a 17-point lead, putting the Mountaineers in their worst deficit situation of the season. West Virginia managed to claw back into the game with seven consecutive points, keyed by Harris' first three of the game, and although Wisconsin added nine more points before halftime, it was the sophomore's show going into the break. He added three more treys to keep the Mountaineers in contact, and although they trailed 39-31 at the break, there was some optimism in the Mountaineer camp.

That faded somewhat in the opening minutes of the second half, as WVU was unable to take advantage of the better defense it played. Huggins switched to a 1-3-1 for the opening minutes, and Wisconsin struggled to get back into the offensive rhythm it found in its first-half run. Unfortunately, West Virginia was unable to take advantage of the slack, and it still trailed by nine at the under 12-minute media timeout.

"We gave a physical effort, but mentally we have so far to go," head coach Bob Huggins said after the game. "We call a timeout and run a set and a guy isn't even close to running what he should. It's hard to make adjustments. We have freshmen, and the game got too big for them. They've taken advantage of our freshmen."

Despite those shortcomings, the Mountaineers continued to press the action. Switching back to man at times, and also employing a halfcourt trap, WVU cut the lead to four on two different occasions, the last at 59-55 on Harris' two free throws with four minutes to play. From there, however, the Badgers Sam Dekker hit a pair of big threes in the closing minutes to keep WVU at bay.

The tenth-ranked Badgers played, according to Huggins, their best game of the year, so they certainly didn't need any help. WVU provided that, though, by again turning in a sub-par rebounding effort and clanking free throws at an alarming rate. Wisconsin outrebounded the Mountaineers by ten (37-27), and turned some of its nine offensive boards into additional scoring opportunities.

"We got outrebounded again by 10, and that's inexcusable. Totally inexecusable. We gave them five shots on one possession," Huggins lamented. "It's so frustrating. How many balls hit our hands and we don't get them? We're just not as attuned to the ball as what we need to be."

West Virginia has been able to overcome that shortcoming in other wins this year, but the free throw shooting proved to be the dagger in its efforts. It hit an abysmal six of its 14 free throws, while Wisconsin drained 15 of its 17. It doesn't take a statistics major to figure out the importance of that difference.

"It's not like we don't shoot enough free throws," Huggins said of his team's 42.9% performance from the line, which was outstripped by its 52.4% accuracy rate from three-point range. "It's not like we had enough practice. We had an opportunity to get West Virginia basketball back on the map and we let a great opportunity slip away."

Another important storyline was Wisconsin's balance. While Staten and Harris combined to score 45 of West Virginia's 63 points, the Badgers put four players in double figures, led by Dekker's 21. Ben Brust added 16, while Josh Gasser (11) and Frank Kaminsky (10) also reached double figures.

WVU saw just five players break into the scoring column, with one of those (Devin Williams) scoring just two points. Wisconsin's five starters recorded 64 of the team's 70 points, while two Mountaineer starters, Nathan Adrian and Kevin Noreen, failed to dent the scoring column.

Still, West Virginia's resilience in rallying from the 17-point first half deficit, and its refusal to fold despite the Badgers' consistent play, does indicate some hope for the future.

"We're going to get better," Huggins said as he exhorted fans to get out and support the team. "We're going to keep working, and we're going to get better as the season goes along. I promise you that."

WVU returns home to face Loyola on Mon., Dec. 2 at the WVU Coliseum. Tip-off is set for 7:00 p.m.

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