While WVU's shortcomings are easy to pick out (lack of consistent shooting, height and bulk being the every-present themes), another facet was highlighted during the loss to the Bearcats, which effectively dropped the Mountaineers into ninth place in the league. That was a sudden shift into offensive ineptitude – an inability to even run sets correctly, much less get a good shot at the basket. On its final four possessions, WVU didn't do much of anything right, and ended up with just one point, allowing UC to steal away with the win.
The carnage began when a wide-open John Flowers took a pass on the left block. Inexplicably, Flowers pump faked, then turned into the lane toward the defense instead of toward the baseline, where he had an even more open path to the basket. What should have been a dunk turned into a foul by Cincinnati's Yancy Gates, and Flowers managed to make just one of two free throws. Although that cut the Bearcats' lead to one, it allowed them to dictate the pace of the game over the final minute. It was also West Virginia's final score of the contest.
On West Virginia's next possession, Da'Sean Butler came off a screen and curled up the lane. Wellington Smith failed to get him the ball, but when Butler showed his frustration at not getting the rock, Smith tried to hand it to him, and botched the exchange. He then compounded the error by fouling after the turnover, giving UC another point and a 63-61 lead.
"I can't even tell you what happened," a baffled Da'Sean Butler said afterward. "It was designed to get me or Alex the ball, and it didn't work out that way. We had two or three turnovers. It was just bad execution on the part of the team."
WVU's next possession was a rushed and hurried one, where no such need existed. Alex Ruoff hoisted a three-pointer with 31 seconds to go that was way off target. Cam Thoroughman tracked down the rebound, but Ruoff hurled up a leaping, twisting, long-range three that had no chance. This, with 16 seconds to go and plenty of time to set up and run a final play. That bad shot was gathered in by UC, which promptly was fouled and missed yet another free throw to give WVU one last chance.
That last reprieve was again squandered by the Mountaineers. Devin Ebanks, on WVU's last meaningful possession, dribbled hard up the left sideline, tried to turn the corner to the basket, and lost his footing while attempting to recover from the out-of-control drive. He slipped, stepped out of bounds, and gave possession back to the Bearcats.
While WVU then compounded its errors with an intentional foul that gave UC two more free throws and the ball, it was its total inefficiency on its last four possessions that cost the Mountaineers the game.
"It was just stupid mistakes," Devin Ebanks confirmed after the game. "We had two turnovers at the end."
Scoring droughts aren't an unfamiliar issue for this team, which struggles to hit even open shots at times. WVU went scoreless for a stretch of five minutes and ten seconds in the first half, and had another of 5:40 in the second half. That it was even in the game down the stretch was something of a small miracle, but when the game was on the line the Mountaineers were unable to get more than one decent shot at the hoop.
The disturbing part of the final two minutes is that these are the sort of mistakes that one sees in November and December, not the latter part of February. At least, from a team that has to excel in crunch time if it expects to do any damage in the Big East or NCAA Tournaments. Was it a one game aberration, or is it a sign of further problems for the Mountaineer offense? The answer will have a huge impact on WVU's success down the stretch.
West Virginia has struggled to find a playmaker to run the offense since Joe Mazzulla went down with a season-ending shoulder injury. Truck Bryant has been maddeningly inable to learn from his mistakes, and while Alex Ruoff, Da'Sean Butler and Devin Ebanks have filled in adequately, the duty at the point often takes them out of their offensive comfort zones, effectively removing a scorer from the Mountaineer rotation. At this point in the season, however, there aren't any miracle cures. WVU will simply have to figure out a way to not squander offensive possessions, and to run its offense efficiently, especially in high pressure situations. Stretches like the one at the end of the UC loss will result in execution of a different sort -- that of the Mountaineers' post season goals.