Throughout most of this season, Bob Huggins’ squad has faced adversity and tough stretches with resilience and character. While the Mountaineers are by no means a team without flaws, they routinely fight through bad times, and mostly, if not always, see good things result. Against the Longhorns, however, WVU appeared to begin the game in a different frame of mind – one that ran totally counter to its recipe for success this year.
It started early in the game, with a good bit of woofing between WVU’s Devin Williams and Texas’ Jonathan Holmes. Both were called together for a consultation with official Steve Olson, but that didn’t calm Williams down, and it affected his play. In addition to continuing the verbal sparring, he turned the ball over five times (at least two were unforced errors) missed half of his free throw attempts and fouled out with just 20 minutes of action to his name.
Whether Williams’ issues were the spur for more loss of composure or just the initial symptom is debatable, but there’s no doubt that it spread. Jonathan Holton, whose emotions are evident for all to see, also grew frustrated with play, and got a technical foul of his own later in the half, which also contributed to his eventual disqualification. Holton played just eight minutes in the game, meaning that even without the technical he averaged more than a foul for every two minutes of action. That has been a recurring problem for Holton, but there’s no doubt that his emotions got the better of him in this game.
In addition to these obvious examples, WVU also showed its loss of cool in other ways. It committed 17 turnovers, and six or seven of those were absent any defensive pressure at all. The Mountaineers simply threw the ball away, either out of bounds or directly to Texas defenders. Those giveaways set up the Longhorns for 21 points, which, compared to WVU’s far-fewer-than-normal eight points off turnovers, paving the way for the blowout. The Mountaineers also failed to execute against Texas' 2-3 zone despite repeatedly getting the ball into the high post, which usually results in good things for the offense. Indecisiveness, rushed shots and hurried or late passes all testified to the fact that the Mountaineers were frazzled, frustrated, or a combination of both.
Finally, for the first time this year, WVU lost the effort battle. The Mountaineers showed a few faint signs of life when Jevon Carter hit three consecutive 3-point shots to cut UT’s lead to 11 with 12:33 to play, but that proved to be WVU’s last field goal until a garbage time lay-up by Juwan Staten with 1:08 to play. When Texas responded with four free throws and a hoop to push the margin back out to 14, the Mountaineers pretty much folded their tent. This was evident in the body language of many players on the team, both on the court and on the bench. Encouragement and support for teammates was mostly absent, and extra effort on defense was non-existent, resulting in a parade of dunks and free throws for the home team.
The collapse and loss of composure was all the more surprising as it hasn’t been evident at all in West Virginia’s makeup this year. The two prior losses and stretches of bad play could be assigned to poor shooting or bad halfcourt execution, but WVU hadn’t let that affect its effort or intensity, at least up until now.
Will this turn out to be a one-time event, or does it mark the start of something different? When wins come frequently, as they did with a pair of seven game streaks, frustrations are lessened, and all seems right with the world. String together some losses, though, and those small annoyances can turn into big ones, and cause a cascade of problems. West Virginia fans (and coaches) are very familiar with that, having watched it play out over the last couple of seasons.
The good news, or, at least, the optimistic observation, is that there have been no indications of that sort from this year’s team. Veterans have provided good leadership, and newcomers have joined together with them to form a team that is clearly greater than the sum of its parts. When we look back on this game at the end of the year, it very well could turn out to be just a blip on a season of success. The next time WVU has a long scoring drought or things don’t go so well, however, the team’s reaction to it will certainly be something to watch.