The Mountaineers, much like they had against No. 4 Wisconsin, were able to challenge a marquee foe – and one that would have severely aided a wanting nonconference resume – only to commit a series of miscues, both physical and mental, that eventually amounted to yet another lost opportunity in the 80-76 defeat to the Zags. WVU, which played arguably its finest first half of the season, utilized an advantageous but controlled style to build an eight-point second-half edge only to see it evaporate amidst red-hot Gonzaga shooting and the coalescence of poor effort, execution and decision making.
The former was much a product of the latter trio. Eron Harris, the game's leading scorer with 23 points, missed a three that would have given West Virginia a game-best 11-point edge with 7:38 left. Nathan Adrian gained the offensive rebound, only to watch Kevin Noreen commit a turnover on the ensuing possession. Then, leading by five with six minutes left, Devin Williams was blocked by Gonzaga's Przemek Karnowski, then tried to force a rebound shot up despite being trapped under the bucket by the 7-1 center with the seven-foot wingspan. That was flatly refused, and the Bullsogs promptly began their rally, finding an open Kevin Pangos for a jumper that cut the contest to one possession.
West Virginia continued to stagnate on offense, with Williams missing a pair of 12-plus foot jumpshots from opposing sides of the baseline on two of the next three WVU trips. The shots, in themselves, weren't poor. But they also weren't the primary selections for an offense that until the final six minutes, had managed to pass and cut within the system to create the lead. The collapse continued on the defensive side, the Mountaineers somehow losing Pangos on three possessions for step-in treys that turned a one-point GU deficit into a 74-66 lead with 2:24 remaining.
It was uncanny, West Virginia's ability to pair mundane play on both ends at the exact time the game was there for the clinching. It wasn't just the lack of screening for Harris – who noted in the postgame that the Lakers screen for Kobe Bryant in a surprising comment – or the stagnation and putrid ball movement. It was a forced, off-balance decision by Staten, a running jumper by Remi Dibo. A wiggle and step back from Harris. All this after Huggins had preached just last game that West Virginia has to do what it does, and not be who it isn't. The decisions went against the very grain and fiber of this team's being and success. Build the lead, then lend a hand to a top 20 foe in tearing it down. It was a religious experience, watching prayers thrown up after such offensive – literally – sets.
"We shot a couple air balls. We didn't get back on defense. We were feeling sorry for ourselves," Huggins said. "It's a selfish thing, and they're not selfish kids. They didn't get back and all of a sudden, you've got five on four. That's a game of numbers and that's what they wanted
And that wasn't all. The Mountaineers' best shooter misses the front end of a one-and-one opportunity. Staten then can't convert a much-needed free throw. And-one opportunities roll around the rim, or off the back iron. And still this team has a chance inside one minute after Staten nails a pull-up jumper with as much moxie as could be mustered to polish an 8-2 run. Gonzaga, which struggled against the half court trap late, misses the jumper – only to have a putback dunk silence the rally and end any chance of West Virginia gaining a major nonconference win.
"We're so close to being pretty good, but at the same time we're so far away," Huggins said. "You can't dunk and stand there and yell at the crowd while they go down and get fouled. That's a selfish act. We've got to cut that out. It's a learning experience. It's happened to a lot of great guys here. It takes a while to sink in."
This was, to put it succinctly, the one that got away. West Virginia, now just 6-4 with zero good wins and one bad loss, has only Marshall, Purdue and William and Mary remaining. Missouri and Wisconsin were better. Virginia Tech, like last season, was an aberration. This…this was an abomination. Because West Virginia had this game. The Mountaineers controlled it. And then the fatal concoction of no effort, no execution, no intelligence quotient killed the buzz.
WVU is, of now, not much more than a pup with more bark than bite. It's enjoyable to watch play, for 30 or 35 minutes. And it's a heck of a lot better than last season; Baby steps have been made. But like a toddler, it's often a couple forward, one back and then a stumble. Progress will continue as it ages. But of now, certainly, it's not close to dancing.