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WVU moving closer to NIT bid, not NCAA

MORGANTOWN - To hear the players explain it, West Virginia is no longer a team playing five first-year players among its top eight.

After 26 games and 10 losses, all of the Mountaineers are freshmen as they try to avoid the NIT and figure out what happens next.

"I don't know," said junior Deniz Kilicli, who turned back the clock to his most inexperienced days with a game-changing error in the first half of Saturday's 77-74 loss to No. 24 Louisville. "I don't have a clue. I don't have a clue what we're going to do. I don't know if we're going to lose our next game or if we're going to lose all of them."

The Mountaineers were 15-5 overall and 5-2 in the Big East 23 days ago and tracking toward a fifth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance. They've lost five of the past six and have their 10th loss earlier than any season since going 8-20 in 2001-02.

Five games remain, beginning with Thursday's 9 p.m. ESPN game against Pitt. WVU (16-10, 6-7 Big East) has lost six in a row at the Petersen Events Center.

"I'd be lying if I said we don't feel a little bit of pressure, maybe even a lot of pressure, but I still have faith," senior Kevin Jones said. "All we can do is keep fighting and find a way to win some games. Coach told us we've got to get to 10 (Big East wins) in order to have a chance. Hopefully we can get 10 wins, but we've got to find a way to get them and fast. The games are winding down."

The Mountaineers could have helped themselves before 11,254 inside the Coliseum and were on their way with a 40-27 lead in the first half and a 44-37 advantage at the half, the first time they've lead at halftime since Jan. 14.

The game already had turned, though. Kilicli was having his way inside against the Cardinals. He had 15 points on 6-for-7 shooting in the first half and WVU was outscoring Louisville by eight points with the 6-foot, 9-inch, 260-pound forward on the floor.

With 1 minute, 24 seconds left in the half, Kilicli was called for his second personal foul as he tried to get a defensive rebound.

"He got his second foul because we had a guy who didn't block out and just stood there," Coach Bob Huggins said. "So he didn't block out and Deniz is standing there and said, 'Let me foul the guy,' and he pushed the guy."

A teammate's small mistake led to a much greater one by Kilicli. He fired the ball high in the air to pick up a technical foul, which counted for his third personal foul.

"I've never done that before," he said. "I lost it. It was just dumb."

Kilicli didn't start the second half and sat for almost eight minutes before returning. He scored just two points and ended up fouling out with 1:43 remaining on an offensive foul. The Cardinals outscored WVU by 10 with Kilicli on the bench in the second half.  

Things like that, or the 10 missed free throws or the sustained struggle to inbound the ball against the Cardinals press and then to move the ball across half-court, all conspired to cost the Mountaineers until the end. Freshman Gary Brown decided to pass the ball from the top of the key, through the paint and under the basket to Jones with 6 seconds to go instead of driving to the basket.

Louisville's Kyle Kuric stole the pass. Jones blamed himself and said he needed to move toward the ball with time expiring.

"It was a bad pass," Huggins said. "It's the end of the game. They're not going to foul you. Get the ball to the basket."

Either way, it was WVU's 11th and final turnover and Kuric's two free throws gave the Cardinals 22 points off WVU's giveaways.  

"We didn't do the things we have to do," Huggins said. "Our margin for error is not very great."

It's costing the Mountaineers greatly. They've lost six games this season by seven or fewer points. The past four losses have been by three, four, six and two points.

"I'm tired of losing," Kilicli said.

"Everyone is. We're tired of losing by two points, one point, like that. I'm tired of losing games we lead in the last minutes. I'm tired of it. It all comes down to one rebound, one loose ball, one dumb act."

The Mountaineers have been working with that in mind for a while now and Huggins was as visibly and vocally frustrated after Saturday's game as he has been all season.

He said he was "tired of the 'ifs' - 'If we would do this right.

"If we would do that right. If we wouldn't do this.'" He's done allowing his player to accept being so close to being so much better than they are, probably because the combination of all the close calls has left them so far from their goal.

After playing at Pitt, where WVU hasn't won since 2005, the Mountaineers play Feb. 22 at Notre Dame and the Joyce Center, where they are 1-11 with 10 straight losses. WVU then plays host to No. 18 Marquette and DePaul before ending the regular season at South Florida.

The Bulls were 7-6 in non-conference play, but are 8-4 in the Big East. USF is also 12-1 in home games.

"We're in a tough spot now," Jones said. "We've been in almost every game we've played in and it seems sometimes we make the right plays and win the game, but more often than not we don't and it's come right around to bite us.

"We've got to learn how to win. It's not about us being there in ever game. We've got to learn how to win them. We've won some tough games, but not as many as we should have."

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at mikec@dailymail.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.


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