Syracuse, losers of three straight entering Wednesday night's game against West Virginia, was calling this game a must-win. The Orange played as such, knifing through WVU's normally-tough defense and sitting back in their patented 2-3 zone as the Mountaineers continued to misfire from all over the court. The end result was a 74-61 win, marking the third loss in four games for West Virginia.
Despite the lopsided margin, it wasn't all bad for the Mountaineers from the opening tap. Freshman forward Devin Ebanks carried WVU through a first-half stretch with nine points in a nine-minute span, with West Virginia briefly leading by a point. With Syracuse leading 22-20, the Orange effectively put the game away with a 13-4 run, creating a little distance between themselves and the Mountaineers.
West Virginia would trim its deficit to six early in the second half, but SU quickly distanced itself again with a 7-0 run. A 10-0 run later in the half, fueled by six points from Eric Devendorf, bumped the lead up to 20 for the Orange.
In an effort reminiscent of his performance against Louisville this past Saturday, Da'Sean Butler again took charge in hopes of keeping WVU from getting blown out on the road. Butler scored eight consecutive Mountaineer points to get the visitors within 10. An Alex Ruoff 3 on the ensuing possession got West Virginia within nine.
Butler drew a foul, but could not convert either of his free throws. Devendorf bumped the lead back up to double-digits with a driving layup. On the other end, Wellington Smith got a clean look at a 3 but came up well short on his attempt. Paul Harris leaked out as Smith let go of his shot, received an uncontested outlet pass off of the long rebound and easily slammed home the game's final field goal.
"It's hard to come in here and shoot 35 percent and win," said dismayed WVU head coach Bob Huggins afterward. "I think the disappointing thing for me is we didn't get to loose balls. We weren't the aggressor in the way that we need to be. We can't be like them because if we're like them, they're better than we are and they're going to win. We have to be the aggressor."
Save for a few spurts here and there throughout the night, West Virginia was anything but. Even with two veteran players limited due to leg injuries, Syracuse was all over the floor on both ends of the court. The Orange owned the glass by a sizeable 46-35 advantage. Harris recorded a double-double with 14 points and 13 rebounds.
Outside of Butler, nobody did much of note for the Mountaineers. Ebanks's nine-point stretch in the first half accounted for all his scoring, though he did grab nine boards. Ruoff continued his recent shooting slump, going just four-for-10 from the field.
At times, it looked as though WVU was trying to beat Syracuse at its own game, which played right into the hands of Orange head coach Jim Boeheim.
"We have to go and stick people and stop their penetration to the goal to be able to rebound the ball," Huggins explained. "We can't get into a reach and jump contest against them because they're going to out-reach and out-jump us every time. We couldn't guard Jonny Flynn. We tried point-drop and we tried zone. They did a good job. They got us spread out."
Flynn, a bona fide All-America candidate, and backcourt mate Devendorf were the catalysts for Syracuse, combining for 44 points (22 each) and nine assists. The Orange outraced WVU by a count of 21-6 in transition scoring, of which a healthy dose resulted from long rebounds that resulted from a plethora of missed jump shots by the Mountaineers. WVU also squandered a handful of first-half transition opportunities itself.
As mentioned, West Virginia had little support for Butler, who scored 20 or more for the sixth straight game. And with little offensive help for their leading scorer, the Mountaineers had no choice but to execute the little things in order to come away with the win. Needless to say, they didn't.
"They've got more artillery than what we have," Huggins admitted. "That doesn't mean we can't win, but we have to be a lot more assertive than what we were. I told them at halftime that we had to play the right way and do the right thing. We stood around too much.
"We didn't have that bounce that we have to have," he continued. "It's hard to have it all the time, but we don't have any other choice. If we don't do that, we're going to lose. If we don't do that Saturday (against Providence), we're going to lose."