Mental aspect lacking from WVU loss to UConn
HARTFORD, Conn. - When the end came Monday night, the West Virginia basketball team that led No. 17 Connecticut by eight points before halftime could only be pleased with one half of its game.
"We really talked about playing 40 minutes and giving everything you've got," WVU forward Deniz Kilicli said. "Physically, everything was there. Everyone was running the floor and giving great effort.
"The mental part of the game was not. When their fans started cheering and you've got to run a play and you forget it and get out of it, that's the kind of stuff that kills us and that's what happened."
For 30 minutes of the 64-57 Big East Conference loss to the Huskies (13-3, 3-2 Big East), the Mountaineers (12-5, 3-2) were almost everything they needed to defeat UConn for the first time in nine games in Connecticut.
They rebounded, had second-chance points and stayed in the way of Jerry Lamb, UConn's leading scorer. They handled a UConn run and the subsequent noise in the XL Center by building a 10-point lead after the first half lead disappeared.
Yet when UConn Coach Jim Calhoun picked up a technical foul and Lamb dunked an alley-oop, the Huskies were on their way to a 17-3 run that gave them control for good.
"I told them, 'If you aren't going to fight, they may throw me out of here, but I'm going to fight,'" Calhoun said.
The Mountaineers would fight back and came from four points down to tie the score 55-55, but they had too little punch and too much dribbling to finish off the Huskies.
"I used to have an assistant say, 'They killed ants,'" Coach Bob Huggins said. "There wouldn't be a damn ant alive if they had any in there.
"I'm telling you, we would have killed them all. We just dribble it and dribble it and dribble it and dribble it and dribble it and we don't pass the ball."
The Mountaineers had 10 assists and only three after halftime, when they missed 22 of 30 shots and all 10 of their 3-point attempts. Two of the three assists came in the final 11:24, when WVU was 2-for-14 from the floor and often ended up taking 3-pointers or shots out of 1-on-1 matchups.
The two assists were the easiest baskets of the second half - a backdoor cut to Jabarie Hinds from Kevin Noreen and a fast-break dunk by Kevin Jones from Gary Browne. However, only Noreen's pass to Hinds was a product of the offense.
"It's hard to score when you don't pass the ball," Huggins said. "We don't have Jeremy Lamb. We don't have guys who can create a good shot. We have guys who have to get that out of the context of the offense, and that's fine, but you have to run offense to do that."
Lamb had 17 of his 25 points after halftime and a dunk, 3-pointer and two free throws during the 17-3 run. WVU's best chance for easy offense was Kilicli, who had four points in the early stage of the second half and was getting shots under the basket.
The more he did that, the more Kevin Jones was able to make UConn's front court - including 6-foot-10, 270-pound freshman Andre Drummond and 6-9, 240-pound junior Alex Oriakhi - devote its attention to Kilicli.
Jones sneaked in for offensive rebounds and had second-chance baskets on back-to-back possessions before the 9:26 mark of the second half. That's when Kilicli went to the bench with his fourth foul.
"When we were running offense, they couldn't do anything to keep me away from getting the ball," Kilicli said. "I was getting the ball and I was getting good looks all the time. My fourth foul stopped that."
Kilicli was called for hooking Oriakhi when he spun on the low block toward the basket. Kilicli sat with WVU up 46-40. He returned with 3:47 remaining and the Huskies ahead 55-51.
"In this kind of game, I think, 'OK, here we go. Finally, somebody my size. This is going to be a good game. I can use my strength, they can use their strength,' " the 6-9, 260-pound Kilicli said. "They (officials Pat Driscoll, Joe Lindsay and Mike Roberts) just didn't let us. They didn't let me or them. We couldn't play physical at all.
"There were a couple possessions Oriakhi and I didn't even touch each other and there's a foul - but they try to do their best. I understand they're not going to have a 100-percent, perfect game, but we're big guys. Let us beat each other up a little bit."
With Kilicli on the bench, WVU had one fewer target inside. Huggins, Jones, Kilicli and Truck Bryant said after the game the Mountaineers were guilty of holding onto the ball and not passing it.
Jones called the style of play "selfish" and thought the younger players panicked as the crowd roared, the lead vanished and the end approached.
WVU was playing with three freshmen as Kilicli sat.
"You could see the freshmen - I wouldn't say they got rattled, but they didn't know what was going on or how to handle it," Jones said. "Truck and I tried to calm them down and tell the game wasn't over and to keep focus, but we lost focus."
Jones said the crowd was not more intimidating or distracting than what the Mountaineers encountered against Kansas State in Wichita, Kan., on Dec. 8. That game went to two overtimes and the Mountaineers won, 85-80, with a lot of help from the freshmen in the key moments.
That same concentration wasn't there Monday for the Mountaineers, who host Rutgers (9-7, 1-2) at 2 p.m. Saturday.
"That was a month ago and we should be even better than earlier when we really didn't know what to do in front of this type of crowd," Jones said. "Guys know that we have to bring it down and run offense sometimes.
"But at that point with a lot of young guys on the floor, they get anxious when stuff isn't going our way. We have to get them to calm down and learn how to use the clock, especially when we're up."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142.