WVU falls short against Syracuse
SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- By this point of the basketball season, which is 25 games old, West Virginia has a good idea what kind of team it is.
With only five games to go before the postseason, which will go on for as long as the unreliable offense and uncharacteristic defense will allow, the Mountaineers managed to surprise themselves Monday night in the Carrier Dome.
"We played great in the first half," said point guard Joe Mazzulla. "The second half was the total opposite."
The result was a 63-52 loss to the No. 17 Orange.
The Mountaineers shared the ball and shot well to take a 30-26 halftime lead. In the second half, they went away from and were taken out of almost all the things that worked earlier. Syracuse outscored WVU by 15 points and shot 52.2 percent in the second half while the Mountaineers gave away possessions with turnovers and bad shots before an increasingly effective crowd of 22,669.
"I'm surprised we turned the ball over as much as we did, considering they play back in a 2-3 zone," forward John Flowers said. "But we turned the ball over and that led to transition baskets and we didn't get back at all on defense. It was an all-around bad team effort getting back on defense and being in the game mentally."
Syracuse (21-6, 8-6) had lost six of eight, but won for the 12th time in 13 games in the series. The Orange started the second half with a 15-5 run and ended the game with a 12-3 run. They outrebounded WVU 35-28 and outscored the Mountaineers 34-4 in the paint and 19-0 on fast breaks.
The Mountaineers finished first in one category - they had two more turnovers (16-14).
WVU (16-9, 7-6) lost for the third time in four games and the third time in seven games when allowing fewer than 70 points. The Mountaineers had won 36 such games before losing to Louisville on Jan. 26 by a 55-54 count.
It's also the fifth consecutive game and the sixth time in seven games the Mountaineers were outscored in the second half -- the exception being the win at Cincinnati Jan. 29. WVU is 2-4 in the six games.
"We've got to realize teams are going to come out harder in the second half," guard Casey Mitchell said. "We tried to do the same things in the second half that we did in the first half because we had a four-point lead, but we didn't realize they were going to come out hard and hit more shots because they wanted to win the game in the second half."
Mitchell led all scorers with 23 points, the most he has scored since getting 28 at Georgetown Jan. 8. Mitchell made a career-high seven 3-pointers on 12 attempts. It was necessary because the points weren't coming from other sources. Flowers had 10 points on 4-for-7 shooting. The other seven Mountaineers were 5-for-26 for 19 points.
Kevin Jones was 2-for-8 and had a season-low four points. Deniz Kilicli was 1-for-7 and had three points. Both had good and familiar shots.
"Kevin had shots. He didn't make any. Deniz had shots. He didn't make any," Coach Bob Huggins said. "Casey was making shots. We've got to go to who's making shots.
"We still tried to throw it in there, but our inside guys didn't score the ball -- and they had the same shots they have all the time. It wasn't like they had different shots. Those were the same shots. Those are two guys we depend on to score the ball for us."
The Orange gave Coach Jim Boeheim his 850th career victory, 21 of which have come against WVU in 27 games. Brandon Triche scored 20 points, Kris Joseph had 16 and Rick Jackson added 10 and nine rebounds. Syracuse shot 46 percent. In the previous three games, opponents shot 51, 44.1 and 54.3 percent.
Syracuse made its first four shots of the second half to start a 15-5 run, which consisted of two three-point plays and two 3-pointers. The Mountaineers missed two shots and committed three turnovers and were down 43-35 when Jackson scored on an offensive rebound.
Mitchell made two 3s around a free throw by Kilicli to get within four points, but Jackson dunked in transition and Triche added another three-point play before C.J. Fair's 2-footer made it 51-42.
Syracuse started the half 8-for-10 to built its largest lead of the game to that point.
Mitchell then made another 3 and Jackson missed three free throws before a pair of foul shots by Mazzulla made it 51-47 with 8:57 remaining. Syracuse sensed trouble and called a timeout, but missed a shot and Jones scored inside the zone to get closer.
After Syracuse made its run and WVU missed 10 of 13 shots, it was a two-point game.
Syracuse scored the next six points fueled by back-to-back and nearly identical turnovers on cross-court passes by Cam Thoroughman. It was 57-49 and Huggins had to call his final timeout with 6:35 to go.
"We turned the ball over and our defense wasn't good and we started to panic," Mazzulla said. "We got down six or seven points and we started to panic. We usually do a good job controlling the tempo with our offense, but it's hard to do that against the zone and we kind of panicked and turned the ball over and forced things."
Mitchell hit from 3 for the final time, but Fair banked in a tough shot in the paint and WVU wasted possessions with a turnover and a rushed air-ball hook shot by Kilicli. Jackson caught WVU's defense napping and fed Joseph for a dunk on the baseline to restore the lead at nine points, 61-52, with 3:35 to go.
"We got too complacent for too long," Jones said. "We weren't sharing the ball as much or finding the open man. Guys weren't cutting as hard as they were in the first half when we were getting open and guys were finding people."
The first half was very different, which is what frustrated the Mountaineers most at the end. They were 10-for-22 from the floor and 7-for-13 from 3-point range -- as many 3s as the team had made in any of the previous 12 games. Nine of the 10 baskets came with assists after 23 of 28 were assisted in Saturday's victory against DePaul.
Everyone who played in the first half scored for WVU, except Joe Mazzulla, who had four assists.
"We know who we are and what we need to do, but it's a matter of doing it consistently," Mazzulla said. "The first half was great, but the second half we totally got away from ourselves."
@Tagline:Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.