WVU Wilts From Paint, Drops BE Opener

West Virginia again tried living on the three. Instead, it was dealt a death blow by St. John's interior domination on both ends in an 81-71 loss Wednesday.

The Mountaineers never found other offensive options, instead hoisting a season-high 36 threes -- second-most in the Bob Huggins era -- while the Red Storm packed the interior defensively and bullied WVU inside to snap a 10-game series losing streak. West Virginia, led by Kevin Jones' 17 points, actually missed 23 three-pointers, which is five more than the total amount it averaged per game over the first 10 contests.

The Mountaineers (8-3, 0-1 Big East) remained largely in the game as long as the threes were falling. Through the first 15 minutes of play, WVU hung with St. John's via seven threes. But when first-year SJU head coach Steve Lavin switched first to a 3-2 zone, then packed the inside in man sets, West Virginia never countered by getting the ball into the middle and attacking the basket. Instead, it tried multiple jumpers from the baseline and continually gave up long rebounds that led to a 10-0 Red Storm edge in fast break points. St. John's (8-3, 1-0) also managed a whopping 40-6 advantage in points in the paint and shot 39 free throws (making 30) to WVU's 11.

When Casey Mitchell drained his fourth and final three of the game 15 minutes in, it gave West Virginia a 25-24 lead. Lavin made the switch then, and Mitchell never hit another three the rest of the way. That allowed the Red Storm to methodically pull away, leading 34-28 at the break and 45-37 with 16 minutes to play on a series of second half inside buckets and free throws. The lead ballooned to a game-high 69-55 with three minutes left before Jonnie West made a meaningless pair of threes that ensured the final margin was closer than it could have been.

Dwight Hardy, who made all 12 of his free throws, led St. John's with 20 points. D.J. Kennedy and Justin Brownlee both added 17 each with a combined one made three-pointer among them. Truck Bryant had 14 for the Mountaineers while Mitchell and West scored 12 each, all on threes.

It was a shocking wake-up for a team that had seemed content to become a jump shooting squad and abandon the interior toughness and physical play that had trademarked them during a Final Four run last season. Now, West Virginia, which lost its league opener for the first time in three years, is staring at a stretch of three consecutive Big East road games in an eight-day span starting Jan. 1. If WVU continues to show a single dimension that too often runs hot and cold, it could find itself buried by a bad start just four games in.

West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins wasn't his firey self, instead seeming resigned to watching his team continually allow SJU to make unguarded challenges to the basket and get multiple dunks in the half court and transition. The Red Storm outrebounded WVU by 10 and controlled nearly all phases of play to hand the Mountaineers their first home los since Feb. 8. SJU's win also broke a five-game losing streak in Morgantown that dated to Feb. 9, 1999 and ended West Virginia's 34-game home winning streak in the month of December.

Neither Huggins nor the Mountaineer players had emerged more than 30 minutes after the game's conclusion, long after SJU's head coach and player had completed interviews.

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