With WVU's 65-64 loss to No. 19 Kansas State, the Mountaineers fell to 8-7 overall. With 16 regular season games left, to reach the 20 win mark – which might still not be enough – West Virginia would have to go 12-4 down the stretch. That's highly unlikely. An obviously easier route would be to win the dozen with a couple Big 12 tournament games, putting WVU at 20-14 at season's end, 10-6 over its final 16 regular season games and 2-1 in the postseason. It's a stretch, and even that makes the Mountaineers a bubble team.
Why even consider such odds? Because Noreen thinks it's possible based upon the way WVU more than held its own again a top 20 team and, perhaps more importantly, played arguably its best game of the season with its best overall effort.
"I wouldn't say it's 40 minutes," Noreen said. "But it was better."
West Virginia still struggled in spurts. WVU had issues at the foul line – though the 12 of 22 for 54.5 percent isn't awful – didn't share the ball as well as one might hope and again couldn't finish with the game on the line. There's no question the Mountaineers are better. But playing better, and still starting Big 12 play 1-2, begs the question is it already too little, too late?
"We are getting better," Noreen said. "We are making steps in the right direction. But instead of a big step today, we just took a very small one. There really aren't any moral victories right now. We need to get to 20, and dropping one like that hurt. We didn't make the plays and it didn't seem like we got the key rebounds when needed. Too many turnovers, too many missed free throws at the end."
The loss of Juwan Staten, for disciplinary reasons, opened up additional opportunities for Jabarie Hinds and Gary Browne. Hinds, other than his one-for-six effort at the line, played fairly well. The guard, handling the point for the majority of the game, played a game-high 36 minutes, scoring 15 points, canning his only pair of three-pointers and managing an even three assists and three turnovers. He attacked the bucket, took confident jumpshots and displayed floor leadership.
Perhaps most impressively, Hinds took blame for the botched play at game's end, noting that the inbounds pass to him wad fine, that he just missed it. It appeared to be tipped, but Hinds said only that he wasn't sure about that, but that he was sure he should have caught it. Browne, who ended up trying what would have been the game-winner after the botched exchange, scored seven points and had five rebounds. Dominique Rutledge hustled. Noreen, who always hustles, kept rebounds alive time and again. Terry Henderson and Eron Harris had solid moments shooting. But it's difficult to get past that Simon and Garfunkel feeling that, with this loss, the nearer the destination, the more you're slip sliding away.
"The ball just didn't bounce our way," Rutledge said. "We have to find a way to pull out wins like this. It would have been big for us. We did well throughout the game, but we have to find a way to execute. We have to make the best of it. They just made a play. It's unfortunate we had to turn out this way, but everybody out there was looking forward to the situation, looking forward to the opportunity."
After opening Big 112 play with two homes games in its first three contests, West Virginia now faces three road games in four outings over the next two weeks. It's among the reasons this game, this opportunity to steal a win, was imperative.
"I thought we competed for the most part," Huggins said. "The problem is we don't do it for a consistent period of time. Did all nine guys that played compete? Absolutely not. But most of them did. I don't make excuses. We started two sophomores and a freshman on the perimeter. Our first sub off the bench was a freshman. We make some mistakes because we are young. … Sometimes you screw up. I screwed up some things and players screwed up some things, too. We played hard. I thought we had a every chance to win it. You play 18 league games and we have lost two at home. Best we can do it 7-2."