Final Possession Breakdown Dooms West Virginia in NCAA Tournament

SAN JOSE, Calif. - Without a timeout, and with an unconventional lineup on the floor, West Virginia's last possession against Gonzaga was a mess.

Trailing by three points, West Virginia took possession with 37 seconds to go. Into the game came Lamont West, who was 0-3 in eight minutes of tentative action, and James Bolden, who had yet to play a second in the contest. They joined Daxter MilesNathan Adrian and Jevon Carter for a grouping that probably hasn't been together on the floor much, if at all, this year.

The logic in the move was understandable. The Mountaineers, struggling to make any sort of shot, put in a duo that has demonstrated the ability to make them in other games, if not in the bright lights of the postseason. It left in the injured Adrian, whose savvy is without question, and Miles, who had nine rebounds to that point. And, of course, there was Carter, who has been WVU's clutch performer all year.

As the play unfolded, however, there was confusion, if not chaos. Aside from Adrian, there was little effective screening or motion on the perimeter. Carter was forced to try to create off the dribble, something that Gonzaga was primed to prevent. He tried multiple times to create an opening for a 3-point shot, but wound up having to take a pair of very difficult, contested attempts that were off the mark. An offensive rebound by Miles gave him the second chance, and then another by Adrian provided a final opportunity, but WVU couldn't even get a shot off, as Carter was again smothered defensively.

"We were playing east to west and were getting no penetration," assistant coach Josh Eilert said afterward. "Everyone was spread. You wish you had an opportunity to call timeout and get something set up, but we were out of timeouts. So then players have to make plays."

That's where things really broke down. Perhaps due to the different lineup, the Mountaineers appeared hugely disjointed on that final possession. There was no flow. With Adrian's injured shoulder, which directly contributed to two very off-target jumpers in the first half, effectively eliminating him as a shooter, Carter was the only creator on the court. Miles and West were a combined 3-15 from the field and are much better as step-in, pass-recipient shooters than as creators off the dribble for threes, and there was just no synergy present. 

Afterward, Carter took the blame on himself, noting that if he had to do it over again he would have tried to take the ball to the basket for a quicker shot. However, there was no guarantee that would have been success either, and admirable as it was that he would shoulder the blame, there was no fault at all in what he tried to do. Certainly, hindsight is 20-20, but Carter had four of WVU's five threes in the game, and was really the Mountaineers' only reliable offensive option. He had 14 of WVU's 28 points in the second half, and five of their nine field goals. 

"We missed 11 lay-ups. That's on us," Eilert noted succinctly. "We were getting lay-ups and we have to make them. There were a lot of missed opportunities there.It's frustrating when it comes down to bunny lay-ups at the rim. It's not like we are trying to miss them."

Whether that thought may have been in the back of Carter's mind is unknown, but it doesn't make his heat-of-the-moment decision a bad one. He wasn't trying to play "hero ball" as one hot-take national pundit accused.  Anyone who has watched Carter, or WVU, this year, knows that's not in his makeup, and it's absolutely not what he will be remembered for, as the writer said. He knew that his team needed him to create something, and with the set breaking down he did what he did for much of the game. While there's no doubt that the final 37 seconds weren't good ones, that wasn't the reason the game was lost. Missed shots throughout the game, bad fouls and late turnovers were the far bigger culprits.


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