West Virginia is having trouble of late holding onto a late lead.
The Mountaineers’ freshman-dominated lineup couldn’t close out No. 24 Louisville Saturday, allowing nine straight points in the final minutes and falling to the Cardinals 77-74.
West Virginia led by as many as 13 points early and maintained momentum deep into the second half, but the Mountaineers wilted under a full-court press and missed rebounding opportunities that yielded several baskets for Louisville.
“We can’t give them that many second chances,” West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said. “They shoot the ball too well and ... we don’t block people out.”
It marked the latest meltdown for the Mountaineers (16-10, 6-7 Big East), who lost for the fifth time in six games and need a quick turnaround to secure a fifth straight NCAA tournament bid.
The loss comes on the heels of a 55-51 setback to Notre Dame Wednesday in which the Mountaineers led with 2 minutes left before yielding a trio of 3-pointers.
“We’ve just got to keep fighting,” said West Virginia forward Kevin Jones. “That’s all we can do. We can’t worry about the last game, win or lose.”
Kyle Kuric scored 17 points to lead five Louisville players in double figures.
The Cardinals (20-5, 8-4 Big East) have had five different leading scorers during their current six-game winning streak and now have added depth with heralded freshman Wayne Blackshear.
The McDonald’s All-American saw his first action of the season and finished with 13 points off the bench on 5-of-9 shooting. He injured his right shoulder in October and wore a protective sleeve in the game Saturday, his 20th birthday.
Louisville coach Rick Pitino said he planned all week to play Blackshear but didn’t want West Virginia to know about it.
“Wayne Blackshear came in and gave us a really big lift,” Pitino said. “He gave us 20 good minutes. The one thing that was evident when Wayne came back was that he really knows how to play the game. His mental capabilities on the floor are terrific.”
Russ Smith had 16 points off the bench for the Cardinals. Chris Smith added 13 points and Peyton Siva scored 10.
It was another close battle of Big East rivals whose four previous meetings were decided by a combined nine points.
Jones had 22 points and 11 rebounds for his 17th double-double of the season after having a nine-game streak snapped against Notre Dame.
Deniz Kilicli added 17 points and Darryl “Truck” Bryant scored 13 for the Mountaineers.
But Bryant, who had 32 points at Providence last Sunday only to get shut out against Notre Dame, went just 3 of 17 from the floor.
West Virginia led 63-54 after Kilicli basket’s with 10:49 left, but he didn’t score again and eventually fouled out. Louisville went to a full-court press to force turnovers and seize the momentum.
“I thought our depth helped our pressure,” Pitino said. “I thought we had fresh bodies. We’ve played a lot of games where we were the tired team because guys were playing 37-38 minutes. We didn’t know if we were going to win, but we felt that we had our legs all the way to the end.”
West Virginia led 71-64 after a Dominique Rutledge basket with 5:52 left before Louisville went on its decisive run, scoring 13 of the game’s final 16 points.
Kuric hit a 3-pointer and Russ Smith stole the ensuing inbounds pass and made a layup with 2:21 left to put Louisville ahead 73-71, its first lead since midway through the first half.
Jones, who got pushed in the back by Chris Smith when he scored off a rebound, made the free throw to cut the deficit to 75-74 with 50 seconds left.
But Kuric stole a pass from Gary Browne meant for Jones. He was fouled and made two free throws with 5.5 seconds left for the final margin.
“He read it perfectly,” Pitino said of Kuric’s steal. “We had to have a stop in the game and we got the right stops. We did a lot of really good things tonight because we played like a veteran team. We never lost our poise in some adverse conditions.”
Bryant’s 3-point try at the buzzer never hit the net.
The Mountaineers shot 50 percent from the floor in the first half but faded, scoring just one basket over the final five minutes of the game. West Virginia shot 36 percent (8 of 22) after halftime.
Despite shooting bonus free throws over the final 11 minutes, West Virginia attempted just eight, making four.
“We were 17-for-27 and if we make our free throws and Deniz stays in the game ... that is what I told them,” Huggins said. “I am tired of ‘ifs’ — if we would do this right, if we would do that right.”
Despite being outrebounded 39-32, Louisville held a 17-12 advantage on the boards in the second half.
“We had to make corrections at halftime so that we could compete with them on the boards,” Kuric said.
No. 24 LOUISVILLE 77, WEST VIRGINIA 74
Kuric 5-10 3-4 17, Behanan 1-4 2-2 4, Dieng 1-4 0-0 2, Siva 4-9 2-2 10, C. Smith 4-10 2-2 13, R. Smith 6-12 4-4 16, Price 0-0 0-1 0, Swopshire 1-3 0-0 2, Blackshear 5-9 0-0 13. Totals 27-61 13-15 77.
WEST VIRGINIA (16-10)
Jones 7-13 5-7 22, Kilicli 7-8 3-5 17, Hinds 3-8 0-0 7, Browne 1-3 2-2 4, Bryant 3-17 5-7 13, Rutledge 2-4 2-4 6, Brown 1-2 0-0 3, Williamson 0-0 0-0 0, Miles 1-1 0-2 2. Totals 25-56 17-27 74.
Halftime—West Virginia 44-37. 3-Point Goals—Louisville 10-22 (Kuric 4-8, C. Smith 3-5, Blackshear 3-5, Siva 0-1, Swopshire 0-1, R. Smith 0-2); West Virginia 7-22 (Jones 3-5, Bryant 2-10, Brown 1-2, Hinds 1-4, Browne 0-1). Fouled Out—Kilicli. Rebounds—Louisville 32 (Behanan, Dieng 6); West Virginia 39 (Jones 11). Assists—Louisville 12 (Siva 5); West Virginia 13 (Hinds 6). Total Fouls—Louisville 23, West Virginia 16. Technical—Kilicli. A—11,254.
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