Loss shows great lengths of WVU's work
INDIANAPOLIS - Witnesses were left with more than the sudden end of West Virginia's season near midnight Saturday. They may have gained a more realistic appreciation of the team and the journey, too.
Never before was it as clear how small the margin for error was for the Mountaineers and how good at some things they truly were to be Big East Tournament champions and Final Four participants.
The numbers were not pretty. The shooting percentage was low again. The total points didn't rival the average again. Yet none of that was new for the Mountaineers, who for quite some time had joked that their best chance to score was to miss a shot and score on the rebound and said through smiles that their defense needed to be good because their shooting was not.
The laughs stopped in the 78-57 loss to Duke in the national semifinal. On offense the Mountaineers were themselves - which is to say, very average - but decidedly different on defense and rebounding.
With those two strengths unable to support the known weakness, WVU had no chance to beat the blue-hot Blue Devils. Fans could sadly see how commendable the team's past performance really was to make it so far.
Things could have gone similarly sideways anywhere along the way, but the Mountaineers were able to win despite offensive futility before arriving at the end inside Lucas Oil Stadium.
"When your bread and butter aren't working, what the hell do you turn to?" point guard Joe Mazzulla said. "I think it caught us by surprise that our defense and rebounding didn't come and save us."
It had for nearly all of a 10-game winning streak that spanned the final three games of the regular-season, the three Big East Tournament games and the four games needed to reach the school's first Final Four since 1959.
The 41.3 percent shooting performance against Duke was better than six numbers posted during the winning streak - and there was a 41.4 in there, as well - and above the collective 39.7 percent the team has shot since the previous loss Feb. 22 at Connecticut.
They made five 3-pointers and averaged 5.5 the previous 10 games. They scored 57 points, which was the third-lowest total of the season, but the other two low points came in the Big East Tournament. Scoring stopped being critical, and during the winning streak WVU's average dropped 2.5 points to 72.4.
"The fact we couldn't make shots finally caught up to us," Mazzulla said.
It caught up to the Mountaineers and lapped them in Circle City because the defense and rebounding vanished. WVU had a season-low 27 rebounds and gave up 19 second-chance points.
Duke had a 17-0 edge at one point in the second half. WVU compounded that by allowing the Blue Devils easy access to open looks and easy baskets. Duke was 16-for-32 from 2-point range - 10 layups, one dunk - and 13-for-25 from 3-point range. Many of the 3s were wide-open looks after an extra pass or an offensive rebound, but also when WVU just failed to cover someone they knew could score from behind the line.
"You can't leave good shooters open," forward Da'Sean Butler said. "That doesn't make any sense. We were just doing a really bad job of just finding people. They made everything. Everything. But they didn't have too many contested looks."
Duke can make those. The Mountaineers can struggle to make those and they did Saturday. Kevin Jones, who was shooting 56.1 percent in the NCAA Tournament and hade made 8-of-14 3-point attempts, was 2-for-6 and 1-for-3. Butler was 2-for-8 and 0-for-2. Mazzulla had four points after getting 17 against Kentucky in the Elite Eight. Wellington Smith needed 10 shots and three free throws to get his 12 points.
The Mountaineers led just once and for only 19 seconds, and they never had more than five unanswered points. A 13-point lead late in the first half was cut to eight, and WVU got stops on three consecutive possessions but couldn't score to get closer than eight at the half. It was a five-point game shortly after halftime, but it jumped back to 10 within four minutes and was never closer the rest of the way. In the second half, the most desperate stretch of the season, they shot 6-for-20.
"I think through all of it our guys have done a great job of persevering and working their way through things," Coach Bob Huggins said. "They're good guys. They're guys who put the team and the welfare of others before themselves. That's a great character to have."
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.