The Mountaineers did a myriad of things right. Its pressured bothered the Tigers, forcing 24 turnovers – but just nine in the second half when LSU began to cycle the ball back to the inbounder and attack the middle of the floor instead of guard Josh Gray bottling himself in a corner. WVU pounded its own offensive glass, but also missed far too many lay-ups, and –ins, from close range. It was a fine example of an alternate usage of the term point blank range, West Virginia coming up with just that on the scoreboard on multiple key attempts down the stretch as LSU rallied.
It’s fair to say West Virginia was beaten on the boards, but certainly not pummeled. The final numbers, 44 to 35 in favor of the visitors, was offset by a 17-13 edge in second chance points for the Mountaineers. But, and here’s where the old line about torturing stats to make them say anything, Louisiana State needed not those second chance points. They simply put the ball in the bucket the first time, shooting 46.4 percent for the game, 50 percent for the second half, and a whopping 53.3 percent from three-point range at eight of 15. Some of those were contested. Many were not. Some were shots, such as those in transition, that head coach Bob Huggins likely wanted the Tigers to take. Chalk it up to a sweet shooting night from the Bayou.
LSU guard Keith Hornsby, he of the artistically awful but results-oriented jumper, hit all three of his tries from behind the arc in scoring three points about his season average of a dozen. Sixth man extraordinaire Tim Quarterman went eight of 14 from the floor, and 3-of-4 four from three, for a game-high 21 points. Forward Jarell Martin was as difficult a match-up as West Virginia has faced this season, and netted a double-double at 18 points and 14 rebounds before fouling out with 26 seconds left. And that might have been when the game changed. Sans his most reliable offensive source, LSU head coach Johnny Jones chose to go small, spreading the floor and forcing West Virginia to match quickness and cover greater distances to close out on shooters and shut down lanes. That, and a bad defensive move on the game’s final scoring play, created the last lay-in for the difference.
Gray charged down the lane, getting a flat screen between the foul line and arc. Huggins noted that the WVU guard defending the play is supposed to break to the opposing guard’s dominant hand, the thinking being that side will be the one chosen more often than not. Instead, the guard went left, meaning both defenders on the play guarded the same side. That opened the lane, and Juwan Staten was caught between trying for help side defense – and thus leaving the shooter open for a great look – or staying with his assignment and seeing is his teammates could recover.
“We practice that every day,” Huggins said. “That’s a flat screen. The guard has always taken right and the big takes left. The guard jumped to the left. Even with that, I don’t get how you shoot a layup from the top of the key and nobody helps.”
Staten made the right decision. One cannot abandon one’s defensive assignment, especially when it’s unclear if teammates can still make the play. One could argue that forcing a three is better than perhaps giving LSU a lay-up. But is a wide open look from three better than a contested lay-in? It was a breakdown, pure and simple, and it was just the latest of several that cost West Virginia its unbeaten start. Frankly, the entirety of the issues were best surmised by Huggins in the postgame.
“We missed a layup. We didn’t guard half court. Everything we set to do, we did the opposite,” Huggins said. “We didn’t chase the ball. We missed four of five layups in the second half. How do you miss a layup? We missed some free throws. We shoot 100 of those a day. … We ran a set for Jonathan (Holton) and they threw it over his head. We had a man wide open at the other end and shot it four feet from the rim. The team is too talented to miss shots like this. It’s not a matter of us getting shots, it’s a matter of us making it.”
And when all those factors, and undoubtedly some additional ones, come together against a solid team like LSU – “I told you guys they were good,” Huggins said afterward – it’s typically going to mean defeat. The honesty of the situation is this: WVU was ahead by 14 in the second half and simply failed to make enough plays over the final 10 minutes. But much of that wasn’t forced by LSU as much as it was West Virginia beating itself. The Tigers aren’t a great team of yet. But they possess very solid talent, excellent size and some raw physical gifts. And the Mountaineers had them beaten. From a fan perspective, the thought here is the majority figured WVU would win the game right down to the penultimate possession. Staten had a great chance at a steal late. He didn’t make it. He had a good shot at the end. It didn’t go down. WVU had multiple chances at a tip, and couldn’t quite get the shot to fall.
But with all those mistakes – and there’s no mistaking that miscues like that can’t continue, or West Virginia will fall prey to simply not being a sound squad – the Mountaineers were still in position to win. Still should have won, by most objective accounts. Aspects of play have to be honed, cleaned up, bettered. Northern Kentucky (3-4) offers that opportunity, before WVU gets back into reasonable opponents in Marshall and NC State. There are four nonconference games remaining. But that point, with a couple solid foes on the docket, one should know far more about this West Virginia team than what’s apparent now. Among the first orders of business? Half court offense and defense, which Huggins admits has suffered because of the focus on the press.
“Our post guys have to get better,” Huggins said. “One of them is shooting 24 percent. The others are under 40 percent. When you throw it that close, you have to come up with something. (And) I thought when we pressed this way that the half-court defense would suffer and it has really suffered. The older I get, the smarter my dad (Charlie, a high school coach) was. He used to drive me crazy because he used to drill fundamental stuff. Passing, pivoting. There are some fundamental things we don’t do very well. … The funny thing is we could have won the game.”
Maybe. But as Huggins noted after the 2010 Connecticut game, right before his team’s Final Four run, woulda, coulda, shoulda, whatever. West Virginia is what it is. But it’s still early in the season, and it has the potential to be so much more.