It was hard to tell what was uglier during the game's first half: the quality of basketball, or the bright combination of WVU's gold uniforms against Tennessee's blazed orange. Based on the numbers, it was likely the former. The teams combined for 25 fouls and 21 turnovers during the slop-filled 20 minutes, with both coaches ready to pull their hair out over careless mistakes on both sides of the court.
West Virginia trailed for virtually the entire first half, mainly due to carelessness with the basketball against Tennessee's intense man-to-man pressure. When the men in gold did have the ball, they had trouble finding the bottom of the bucket, particularly from downtown. The Mountaineers shot just three of 11 from beyond the arc in the half, leading to long rebounds and nine transition points for Bruce Pearl's bunch .
"We inflicted ourselves with what I think in tennis they call unforced errors," Huggins said following the loss. "In the first half, I thought their pressure on the ball was really good. When you're playing against somebody that puts that kind of pressure on the ball, you can't have unforced errors on top of it.
"We can't throw it to them," he continued. "In the first half, we threw it to them."
At the outset of the second half, it looked like the Vols had figured out West Virginia's intense man-to-man defense as UT held a steady advantage for the opening four minutes. Around the 15:30 mark, though, the Volunteers began to self-destruct, and West Virginia was able to stay in the game by capitalizing on a bevy of frustration-inspired errors of judgment by the men in orange.
With Tennessee leading by seven and looking to pull away, West Virginia senior point guard Darris Nichols recorded a beautiful block on the Tennessee end of the court. The Mountaineers then raced towards their own goal with junior forward Joe Alexander able to draw a foul via head fake against an over-aggressive Volunteer defender. Third-year UT head coach Bruce Pearl sprinted out of the coach's box, immediately drawing a technical foul from official Bryan Kersey. Alex Ruoff made the two technical free throws, and Alexander subsequently sunk a pair from the charity stripe to cut the deficit to just a bucket.
On UT's next possession, big man Wayne Chism missed a chip shot from under the basket, then watched as the ball graze off his fingertips and out of bounds. Once he finally corralled the rock, Chism opted to slam it into the court, then watch it sail into the air. The act caught the attention of all three officials, who simultaneously whistled Tennessee's second technical foul in a 15-second span. Ruoff's two technical foul shots tied the game, and moments later Nichols gave West Virginia its first lead since the game's opening moments with his runner off the glass.
It wouldn't last long, with the Volunteers answering almost instantaneously on a Ramar Smith's old-fashioned three-point play to give the lead right back to UT. JaJuan Smith followed with back-to-back 3's, and Duke Crews recorded a pair of alley-oops as Tennessee looked to be assuming control yet again.
Later, with the Vols' lead inflated to nine, sophomore forward and Newark native Da'Sean Butler scored five straight points to get his team back in the game. With under four minutes to play, Huggins drew up a play calling for Butler to take a short jumper in the lane with the Mountaineers trailing by two. The Newark native got a good look in front of his hometown crowd, but the shot rimmed out and into the waiting arms of UT's Tyler Smith.
Tennessee senior point guard and All-America candidate Chris Lofton nailed a guarded 3 – something he does better than perhaps anyone else in college basketball – and gave the Vols a five-point cushion yet again. West Virginia was able to pull within a point on Alex Ruoff's long 3, but clutch foul shooting by the Volunteers spoiled any hopes of the first marquee win of the Huggins era.
While Huggins admittedly does not believe in moral victories, the former Mountaineer cager was impressed with his team's resilience down the stretch against its toughest opponent to date.
"We're not going to fall apart. We're not going to fall apart because we work so hard at doing the fundamental things of basketball," he said. "We work hard at guarding, we work hard at rebounding the ball. We've got a long, long way to go, but it just doesn't make sense to work the way that we work every day and then come out and not compete. We're going to compete."
"That was a very hard-fought game," said Pearl. "Both teams will be challenged tomorrow, considering the hour at which we are finishing up, and considering the physicality of the game.
"What they did to us defensively was terrifically disruptive," he continued. "They bothered us. We could not run our offense."
Lofton was the game's leading scorer, finishing with 19 points on just five-of-15 shooting. The Mountaineers held the Tennessee star to just three-of-13 from downtown. Chism finished with 17, and JaJuan Smith added 15 to pace UT.
Butler led West Virginia with 16 points and seven rebounds before fouling out late in the game. Nichols and Ruoff finished with 15 and 14, respectively. The Mountaineers will take the court at 4:30 on Saturday afternoon for the third-place game of the StubHub! Legends Classic against New Mexico State. The Aggies lost 102-87 to No. 16 Texas in Friday's opening game.