Sure, they could cause them at great rate, but they would also hand them right back almost as frequently.
And Friday night in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, the wrong type of turnovers were WVU’s undoing. Stephen F. Austin, the No. 14 seed in the East Region, out-West Virginiaed West Virginia, forcing 22 Mountaineer turnovers to just seven of its own. That resulted in a 29-4 SFA advantage in points off turnovers and ultimately a 70-56 Lumberjack victory.
The stunning loss ended the season for the No. 3 seed Mountaineers (26-9) much earlier than almost anyone expected. SFA (28-5) will take its swarming defense into the NCAA’s second round on Sunday where it will face the winner of the Notre Dame/Michigan first round matchup.
West Virginia’s turnover problems in Brooklyn shouldn’t have come as a huge surprise. After all, Stephen F. Austin had led all Division I teams in turnovers forced this past season, bettering No. 2 WVU by just a smig. They were the only two D-I basketball teams to average more than 18 forced a game this year. But the Mountaineers also have a bad habit of giving it back in bunches, as well, though Friday was as bad as it gets. Their 22 turnovers equaled their worst this season, and it was only the third time this year it has had 20 or more.
But those miscues couldn’t have come at a worse time.
“I've told them and told them and told them, and honestly, I think they've tried,” said WVU head coach Bob Huggins of his team’s constant turnovers. “We’re taking guys trying to make them point guards that haven't been point guards, and this is really their first year playing point guard. We just didn't do a very good job.”
Huggins also explained that West Virginia’s turnovers stemmed from a fundamental problem.
“We can't pass,” WVU’s ninth-year head coach explained. “We haven't been able to pass all year. We start the game, and we have guys pinned, and we throw it arms high. We had a guy open on an out-of-bounds play, and we threw the ball right in their hands. We spend a lot of time trying to teach guys how to pass, but I think sometimes you better go recruit some guys that can pass because it's kind of like shooting. If you're a bad shooter, you can become a little better, but you're never really going to be a good shooter. If you're a bad passer, you can get better, but you're never going to be a good passer. It's a skill thing.
“We've done it all year,” Huggins continued. “This isn't a new deal for us. It's just we've made up for it in other ways that we didn't make up for tonight. We didn't make a shot today either. We didn't make free throws. If you wrote down how to lose a game, you could probably check off just about everything that you wrote down. That's not taking anything away from Stephen F. Austin. I love Brad (Underwood, SFA head coach) to death, and Brad's done a great job with that bunch, and they played their butts off. But you could probably make a list and check it off and say, yeah, they did all those things.”
West Virginia’s problems were slowing it down much early at the Barclays Center. It jumped out to a 20-11 lead in the game’s first seven and a half minutes, as WVU’s Esa Ahmad made a pair of three-pointers. The freshman forward had only two threes all season prior to Friday’s flurry. But just when it appeared the Mountaineers were in control, Stephen F. Austin’s defense started turning West Virginia over at a rapid rate. WVU had six turnovers on six straight possessions before it scored another bucket, and by that time, the Lumberjacks were on a roll. SFA closed the first half by outscoring West Virginia 20-7 to take a 31-28 lead into the lockerroom at the midway point. The halftime break did nothing to slow the Lumberjacks down, as they scored seven straight after the break to push their lead to 38-30.
WVU had one run left in it, trimming Stephen F. Austin’s lead down to 48-45 at the 9:30 mark. And the Mountaineers had a chance to cut it down further, but Jaysean Paige missed a three, and SFA quickly pushed its advantage to double figures and West Virginia never really threatened again.
Ahmad finished with 10 points. Devin Williams led the Mountaineers with 12 points and 17 rebounds, which was one off his career high. But he also had five turnovers, which was the worst of all the WVU players other than Tarik Phillip, who had six. After Ahmad’s early three-pointers, WVU missed 13 of its next 14 shots from beyond the arc. Its guards missed all 11 of their three-point attempts, and combined for just 22 points.
Stephen F. Austin did not have a great shooting night itself, making just 17-of-55 field goal attempts. But the Lumberjacks got 33 points from Thomas Walkup, who had a 19-of-20 performance from the foul line.
Despite the fact that SFA was outrebounded (48-33) and didn’t make a huge number of three-pointers (7-of-23), it still pulled off the 14-3 seed upset by "out-West Virginiaing" West Virginia.