By Cam Huffman
The headlines in sports sections around the state Tuesday morning read, “Texas beats West Virginia.” Perhaps a more accurate description of the action Monday night in Morgantown would have been, “Oklahoma State beats Mountaineers — again.”
A WVU basketball squad that showed heart, desire and pride Saturday in a heartbreaking 73-72 loss to No. 11 Oklahoma State showed none of the above two nights later in an 80-69 defeat that was never really that close against an average Texas club.
The loose balls all went to the Longhorns. The Mountaineers pouted about missed shots and refused to get back on defense, and head coach Bob Huggins’ club showed about as much emotion — at least up until the final 5 or 6 minutes — as Ben Stein describing the solar system to a room full of high school freshmen.
It was clear that the Mountaineers just hadn’t put the loss to the Cowboys behind them.
“I didn’t think the Oklahoma State game would wear on us as much as it did, but that tends to happen when you play a game that’s so emotional and lose,” said junior point guard Juwan Staten, who walked off the floor Monday looking like he had been told he won the Powerball and then told it was a mistake. “Sometimes you come out flat. We tried to protect against that, but we couldn’t do anything right.”
The question now is where does WVU (10-7, 2-2 Big 12) go from here?
All season, the verdict has been that this year’s team is much better than the one that finished 13-19 a year ago during the Mountaineers’ first trip through the Big 12, and it’s hard to argue with that. Last year’s team didn’t have a go-to player who could get points when they’re needed most or put his team on his back with the game on the line. Staten — the new one who showed up this season — is that guy. Last year’s team was mostly void of shot makers. This year’s has plenty.
The results haven’t been much different. The record is a little better. Last year after 17 games, WVU was 8-9. And after four Big 12 games, it was 1-3. So things are going in the right direction. But more importantly, this team has shown the ability to compete with pretty much anybody on its schedule.
A year ago at this time, WVU had an 84-50 loss to No. 19 Gonzaga and an 81-66 setback to No. 3 Michigan where it was about as competitive as Temple against the New England Patriots. This year’s team had a chance in the closing minutes against No. 10 Wisconsin, No. 20 Gonzaga and No. 11 Oklahoma State, even though it fell short. That’s improvement, even if it isn’t as big a jump as fans had hoped to see.
“We’re freshmen and sophomores,” said Huggins of his young team. “We’re making progress. We don’t quit. That’s a start. They’re going to keep playing.”
Monday night, though, was definitely a concern. It was the first time all season the Mountaineers didn’t compete — the previous six losses all came by single digits — and the first time they resembled the team Huggins put on the floor a year ago — a group he’d like to forget.
If Monday’s performance becomes a trend, this team is in trouble. Over the final 14 games, WVU will play nine ranked teams, including three in the top 10. If it’s not ready to play — and if it can’t learn to bounce back from adversity — the next two months could be about as enjoyable for Huggins, his players and the Mountaineer faithful as a root canal without anesthesia.
But there’s also another option. If WVU can take the floor with the energy and desire it showed against Oklahoma State and Gonzaga every night, the wins will start to come. The ball will bounce the Mountaineers’ way, and the shots at the end of the game will start to fall.
“Honestly, I’m tired of losing,” said sophomore guard Eron Harris. “I think the mentality is to play like we do at the end of the game the whole game. But that’s harder done than said. We just have to figure out a way.”
“It starts (now),” added Staten. “We all need to look at ourselves in the mirror and see what we can do better.”
With challenge comes opportunity, and there’s plenty of that ahead for WVU. If this team really has made strides, there should finally be a reason for Mountaineer fans to cheer — even before Randy Mazey’s baseball team gets back on the diamond.
— E-mail: email@example.com and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.