Unfortunately for the Mountaineers (14-12, 6-9), they couldn't take advantage of that situation, and ended up losing a 65-52 decision to the Orangemen at the WVU Coliseum.
"For us to win games, we have to either shoot the ball extremely well, or we have to just get in there and fight and scrap and get some loose balls and grab rebounds," head coach John Beilein said after the game.
The Mountaineers did neither, hitting just eight of their 24 field goal tries in the second half and coming up on the short end of a 40-26 rebounding margin.
Despite hitting just 37% of their shots for the game, and going a miserable 1-14 from behind the acr in the second half, West Virginia found themselves trailing by just five points with 3:18 to play in the game. However, as has been the case in several games late this year, it was the opponent, and not the Mountaineers, that came up with the big baskets down the stretch. Syracuse went on an 8-0 run, holding WVU to four missed three-point attempts over that span, and came away with a 13 point win over a clearly dispirited WVU squad.
In the first half, West Virginia shot the ball poorly, but managed to stay in the game as their defense held the Orangemen to 40.7% from the field. While the Mountaineers made just 40% of their own shots, they did manage to hit four three-pointers, and rallied from their biggest deficit of the opening half (five points) with a pair of hoops in the final minute to cut the Syracuse lead to one.
The most exciting score of the half belonged to senior walkon Jonathan Curran, who was inserted into the game with 58 seconds to go. Following a steal by Tyrone Sally in the closing seconds of the half, Curran broke ahead of the pack, tracked down a pass and hit a floating jumper at the buzzer to send the Mountaineers into the locker room with a bit of momentum on their side.
"It was kind of overwhelming," said Curran as he described his big moment. "Ty kind of kicked the ball ahead and I caught up to it, then McNamara flew by me and I put it up and it went in. The crowd erupted, and it's a feeling you can't explain."
As the second half opened, however, WVU seemed intent on giving back that momentum. Early turnovers and missed shots allowed the orange-clad visitors to move out to a nine-point advantage just five minutes into the period, and although the Mountaineers battled to cut the deficit, they could never get closer than five the rest of the way.
Syracuse (20-6, 10-5) was led by the high-flying Hakim Warrkick, who recorded a double double with 25 points and ten rebounds, and often befuddled the WVU defense with an array of spin moves and pump fakes around the basket. Despite a West Virginia scouting report that emphasized the agile forward's ball faking ability, Mountaineer defenders bit on his fakes time and again, allowing him clear paths to the basket or the opportunity to get to the free throw line, where he canned nine of his 11 chances.
Also big for the Orange was guard Gerry McNamara, who had 14 points and five assists, and created several inside chances for teammates with an assortment of drives and slick interior passes.
"Right now, we just don't have an answer for players like Warrick and McNamara," head coach John Beilein noted. "We did everything we could, but their defense is very tough to score on."
Indeed, the Mountaineers played a 1-3-1, a 2-3 and a diamond and one in an attempt to contain the Syracuse stars, and in some ways the tactics paid dividends. Syracuse only hit 44% of their field goal attempts, but, as in their win over Pitt on Sunday, was able to hit key shots while Mountaineer efforts clanked away.
Two big plays, both by McNamara, were keys in the win. Following a layup by Craig Forth, McNamara stole a lazy WVU inbounds pass and hit Josh Pace for a jumper. The four point swing put Syaracuse up by seven points, their largest lead to that point. Later, he hit a big three pointer following an offensive rebound to put the visitors ahead by 11, and the Mountaineers into a big hole with 6:57 to go.
D'or Fischer paced the WVU scoring effort with 19 points, while Tyrone Sally was the only other Mountaineer in double figures with 12. Fischer had eight rebounds and was credited with three blocked shots, but appeared to have at least two more which didn't show up in the final numbers.
Joe Herber was limited to 24 minutes due to early first half foul trouble. Warrick, Pace and McNamara played all 40 minutes for Syracuse.
West Virginia now faces something of a critical game to close out the season as they travel to Miami for their regular season finale. WVU needs one more win to sew up an NIT bid, and also to remove the building frustration that's evident on the squad. A win over the Hurricanes, while hardly monumental, would also give the Gold and Blue a taste of success as they head into the Big East tournament next week.