WVU basketball: Mountaineers running out of time to improve
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - West Virginia stands in the middle of a season that's leaned in many different directions already.
The Mountaineers have been blown out and have blown out teams. They've won in the final seconds and they've lost there. They've given away huge leads and they've erased huge deficits. They've never most more than two in a row, but they haven't won more than three in a row, either.
It's all happened in the first 15 games for WVU (8-7, 1-2 Big 12). Another 15 games follow Wednesday's 9 p.m. ESPN2 game against Iowa State.
"It's getting late," freshman guard Terry Henderson said. "We still have time. We still have the rest of conference play and the conference tournament to pick things up, but we have to get it started here soon."
The Cyclones (11-4, 1-1) just beat Texas 82-62 three days after the Mountaineers came back from being 13 points down in the second half to beat the Longhorns in overtime. WVU followed that with shaky play down the stretch in Saturday's 65-64 loss to No. 18 Kansas State before 10,039 inside the Coliseum.
"We're getting better, we're making steps in the right direction, but instead of taking a big step (Saturday) we took a very small one," forward Kevin Noreen said. "There really aren't any moral victories right now. We need to get to 20 (wins). Dropping one like that hurts."
WVU believed it had started something with the comeback inside the Erwin Center, where a Big 12 team had never beaten Texas in a conference home opener. The Mountaineers then started with arguably their best offensive play of the season in Saturday's first half. They shot 64.7 percent, easily the highest percentage in a half this season, and made 3 of 4 3-point shots and five layups.
Yet they were also being outrebounded 12-4 and allowed Kansas State seven second-chance points for a 36-33 lead at halftime.
"We came in and for two days talked about how (Kansas State) lost two games and both times got beat pretty badly on the glass and didn't score 60 points," WVU Coach Bob Huggins said. "All we talked about for two days was that we had to win the battle on the boards - and we had four rebounds in the first half. Four."
There weren't many missed shots, though. WVU shot 11-for-17. Kansas State shot 15-for-22 and that 68.2 percent was the highest by an opponent this season. The Wildcats scored half their points in the paint.
The Mountaineers, who have suffered through slow starts in the second half this season, were sharp after halftime Saturday. They made 4 of 5 shots and had baskets on the first four possessions to take a 41-36 lead.
The Wildcats responded with a 12-0 run where WVU was 0-for-6 with two turnovers. The score was tied 50-50 and the game would see one more tie and six lead changes the rest of the way. The Mountaineers took leads, but could never take control.
They were up 53-52 when Dominique Rutledge made a free throw, but he missed the second. WVU forced a turnover, but Aaric Murray missed inside. Rutledge stole a pass, but freshman Eron Harris had his dribble stolen in transition and taken the other way for a layup.
Jabarie Hinds made a jumper for a 55-54 lead. After he was fouled rebounding a missed 3-pointer, Murray went 1-for-2 at the line. WVU then switched to a zone defense, but left Kansas State's Angel Rodriguez open for a 3-pointer.
Gary Browne brought the Mountaineers within a point at 61-60 with a tough runner and Rodriguez turned the ball over. After a timeout, Noreen made a bad entry pass to Murray for a turnover and Rodriguez scored on the other end.
"We started two sophomores and a freshman on the perimeter," Huggins said. "Our first sub off the bench was a freshman. We make some mistakes because we're young, but Kevin Noreen throws the ball away in a one-point game. I don't think anybody here would say Kevin Noreen doesn't try or doesn't give great effort or doesn't have the right intentions. Sometimes you screw up."
WVU eventually took a 64-63 when Harris made a jumper on the right baseline with 25 seconds remaining. The Mountaineers committed a foul in transit and Kansas State's Shane Southwell made the game-winning free throws.
After taking leads in the final 8:10, WVU was 1-for-3 at the foul line, missed a short shot, turned the ball over in transition, left a shooter open in a zone and fouled a ball handler before the defense could get set.
"I thought we competed for the most part," Huggins said. "The problem is we don't for a consistent period of time."
Even with the miscues, the Mountaineers still had another look at a win. Southwell's free throws came with 21.4 seconds left. Hinds missed a short jumper with 11 seconds to go and the rebound went out of bounds off Kansas State.
WVU called timeout and set up an isolation play for Hinds, but he stumbled shaking free from Rodriguez as he tried to take Browne's inbound pass. Hinds deflected the ball into the backcourt, where Browne recovered and rallied to the basket. His shot before the buzzer was smothered by Southwell.
The Mountaineers were close, but remained winless against ranked teams (0-3) and RPI top-100 teams.
"It's also the possessions earlier in the game when we give up an easy layup or don't get back," Harris said. "That's the stuff we can control and that's frustrating. It's frustrating that you know you can control it and it happens to you and you lose by one possession and you know you might have been involved in a possession you could have controlled and it gave them a bucket."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at email@example.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com.