The Friars fell behind early but gained its offensive rhythm and shot past the Mountaineers in building a 36-24 lead with 6:34 left in the first half. PC used strong play and five quick points out of the gate by Randall Hanke, but when the junior center was beaten for a back door alley-oop dunk, Hanke was removed for Ray Hall, and Hall continued his strong play from the Notre Dame game. In addition, Brian McKenzie chipped in eight points and Dwain Williams swished two three pointers and the Friars were rolling, up by twelve.
However, that concluded the high point of the evening for the home team. After a layup by Joe Alexander (19 points, 8 rebounds) cut the lead to ten, PC had two opportunities to go back up by twelve and contribute at least one nail to the ‘Eers coffin. On the first possession, McKenzie rushed an ill-advised three pointer that missed badly and West Virginia answered with a Da-Sean Butler jumper. Next, PC rushed up the court and Jeff Xavier threw an alley-oop pass to McKenzie that had no chance of succeeding and Alex Ruoff answered with a three pointer. Instead of being up twelve again, West Virginia was within five points, and closing.
That, as it turned out, was the turning point of the game. In the last 6:34 of the half, West Virginia closed with a 17-2 run, PC's only points coming on a Geoff McDermott dunk with fifty four seconds left after PC was down by three. At the half, West Virginia held a 41-38 lead, the ghosts of Seton Hall were swirling, and the natives were restless.
In the second half, things went from bad to worse for PC, as the team looked and played deflated. PC made a little run early in the half and grabbed the lead at 43-42 on a three by Williams, but West Virginia's guards swarmed the Friars, pushing them all over the court and forcing the PC offense to start thirty feet from the basket. West Virginia's half court man pressure overplayed the passing lanes, and even made simple in bound passes difficult, as the Mountaineers contested everything.
Hanke, who had languished on the bench for the last eighteen minutes of the first half, had some success inside in the second half, finishing with 18 points, as West Virginia lacks a true center. But every time the Friars threatened to crawl back into the game, Alexander or Darris Nichols (23 points, 4-6 threes) would hit a dagger shot that would lengthen the lead. "We didn't pay attention to Nichols in zone enough," said Tim Welsh. "At halftime we discussed that. Especially when Ruoff went out with fouls, they had one guy that can make shots and that's him. And we didn't pay attention to him. We let him loose for three in the second half and he had three and that was pretty much the dagger."
Xavier was clearly frustrated by a 1-7 shooting night, and Geoff McDermott was not himself with knee problems. "Geoff was not himself today," said Tim Welsh. "He had his knee drained again and you could see it in his spring. We tried to give him a little more rest (29 minutes), use some more people but he's such a key guy. Especially when they're pressuring the guards, he can relieve the pressure. Tonight we struggled with all of that. Our cuts were slow, we looked sluggish. The kids wanted to win, they gave their hearts out Thursday and they gave their hearts out tonight. Some nights you don't have it." PC's were guards overpowered by West Virginia's strong three guard lineup, and the Mountaineers lead soon grew to double digits, topping off at 76-60, and the final was never in doubt over the last ten minutes. Which is when many of the sellout Parent's Weekend crowd began heading for the exits.
But not before letting their feelings be heard. Tim Welsh was booed lustily during the introductions, several "Fire Welsh" chants broke out during the game, and a number of like minded signs made an appearance. Clearly, the atmosphere at the Dunk is growing poisonous and the fans have lost patience with the staff. As the losses pile up, this is a situation that only threatens to get worse.
"I don't feel that, I don't pay attention to it," said Welsh. "I think our fans are great, sellout crowd, I've watched TV, there's a lot of buildings that are half empty around the country so its great to have our fans here. Our fans have always been great with us. If you see something else, that's your opinion, but I don't, No one's ever mentioned that. I don't hear anything, I'm just trying to coach the game. Our fans are great."
For the Friars, many of the same bugaboos continue to show up. Poor free throw shooting plagues the team from game to game, costing PC at least three wins this season. An offense that lacks a true point guard and often doesn't seem to know where to go with the ball or rushes shots shows up at inopportune times. Strange lineups hurt the team at times… at one point in the second half, Alex Kellogg was in the game and the offense was in trouble, so Welsh called a timeout with six seconds left on the shot clock. Instead of subbing Hanke in for Kellogg, who is no threat to score, the Friars returned with the same lineup and the result was an airball. Players sit inexplicably… in this one, Jonathan Kale saw no minutes, while Hanke was buried on the bench for the last eighteen minutes of the first half before returning to start the second half and score thirteen points. With West Virginia overplaying the perimeter, the Mountaineers were vulnerable to back door cuts and plays but none were run.
The Friars also seemed lethargic. "As a coach, you don't know. You get home at three in the morning from Thursday," said Welsh. "You hope you have enough bodies, you get enough rest yesterday. But they're kids, not NBA players. They can't sleep all day, they have to go to class. But we're not going to make excuses. Everybody has quick turnarounds in the league, that's just the way it is."
"Coming back from Thursday night was difficult with such a quick turnaround," said Welsh. "I wish we had an extra day. But the schedule is what it is. You just have to find that inner will to play and I thought early on we had that spark. The key part of the game was the last six minutes of the first half where we stopped playing good offense. We took quick shots, we had three or four possessions in a row where we took quick shots and that led to them getting back into the game because they do a great job of taking quick shots and running them out."
"We had no flow to the game. Our offense looked disjointed, we got a little bit of a flow in the second half but they got up in us and we made some bad turnovers on double teams where we weren't strong with the ball, we didn't inbound the ball well, our ballhandlers weren't strong enough. They were letting them play out there and they were very physical on the basketball and when they happens you have to be strong. They weren't so much turning us over but they were pushing us back and sideways instead of us being the aggressor on offense and they smelled blood because we weren't aggressive with our ballhandling and getting into gaps. Even our ball screening didn't work properly tonight because they were just more aggressive."
As the season continues to slip slide away, fans are left to wonder how a team, thought to be at least a borderline NCAA squad, can find itself in the position of having to struggle just to make the Big East Tournament? Answers will become a little clearer, hopefully, on Tuesday, as PC returns to take on a DePaul team at home, that's already beaten them. Right now, PC just needs wins.
Slip Sliding Away: Friars Fall 77-65
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