For much of the young season, West Virginia has been playing with fire. In just about every game prior to Saturday night's showdown with Kentucky, the Mountaineers had shown flashes of brilliance, even dominance, but also had their fair share of lackluster moments.
For example, after a dominating first half against Iowa on Friday night, West Virginia let down its guard a little bit in the second half, and while the Hawkeyes never really got back into the game to the point that they posed a serious threat, WVU's weaknesses were exposed if not glaring.
Shoddy foul shooting and poor execution on offense had been revealed not just against the Hawkeyes, but in other games as well.
All the while, head coach Bob Huggins tried time and again to get his team's attention. After a season-opening win over Elon College, Huggins wondered aloud why the Mountaineers let the Phoenix back in the game after being up 20-2. After an ugly win over Longwood, he did the same.
Sooner or later, he said, the lack of consistency was going to cost his team a game. On Saturday night in the finals of the Las Vegas Invitational, it ultimately did.
After a dominating defensive performance in the first half, West Virginia led by just 10 at the break. While the Mountaineers held Kentucky to just five first-half field goals, they only sank 10 themselves. Included in that total were a pair of 3s, coming in 10 attempts.
When Kentucky came out for the second half re-charged and possibly even relieved to barely be down double-digits, West Virginia knew it had to respond. It didn't. And as a result, the first loss of the season comes from a game the Mountaineers led by as many as 12.
"It just comes down to a lack of leadership, and that starts with me," said point guard Joe Mazzulla afterward. "I put the whole second-half collapse on my shoulders for not being the leader that I was taught to be."
One night after playing his best game of the season, Mazzulla was unable to duplicate that performance. Though he did an admirable job defensively of slowing down UK scoring machine Jodie Meeks when given the opportunity, the junior from Johnston, R.I. was also hampered by foul trouble for much of the night.
Mazzulla's final line consisted of four points, five fouls, five rebounds, three assists, three turnovers and three steals.
"It's difficult," he shrugged. "We had not been in that situation (a team coming all the way back), it was a foreign situation, and we just didn't know how to handle ourselves."
For the second straight night, the Mountaineers struggled from the line, going 10-17, including a chilly 5-11 effort in the second half as Kentucky made its charge. After a 5-22 second-half effort from the charity stripe against Iowa, Huggins compared the bad foul shooting to a disease. After the loss to UK, West Virginia is still looking for the cure for that and other ailments.
"We need to make free throws," Mazzulla said. "That's what it comes down to. They were 23-25, and Jodie Meeks was 12-12. Not only did we not make free throws, but we did not get to the basket early. We just did not run our offense with efficiency, and we need to do a better job of executing."
If there is a silver lining to the loss, it stems from the fact that the Mountaineers won't have much time to stew about their first loss of the year. West Virginia will be back on the court Wednesday night for a tough road game at Ole Miss. The Rebels are expected to compete for an NCAA tournament spot come March, meaning WVU has no choice but to turn its undivided attention to Oxford, Miss.
Whereas last season's schedule provided few opportunities for important out-of-conference wins, this year's slate has plenty of them, starting with Wednesday's game.
"That's good for us," Mazzulla said. "We told coach we want this schedule. It's what we want, and it's the only thing that is going to help us grow and mature as a team. I'm kind of excited that our next game is an away game against a great Ole Miss team. We have a chance to redeem ourselves."
Even still, the sting of the first loss comes with a lesson. As Huggins had forecasted earlier in the season, lackluster efforts against better teams can often result in losses. Unfortunately for West Virginia, it took an effort such as Saturday's to get that point across.
"It shouldn't," Mazzulla said. "It should not take a loss. We should win the game, go watch film and learn from our mistakes. Huggs warned us the entire year that you don't want to learn from losing. It shouldn't take a loss, but unfortunately it did.
"Once again, we find ourselves learning from losing," he concluded. "That's something that we have to work on."