Lessons Unlearned

It's a common question heard after losses: "What did you learn from this?" But following West Virginia's agonizing 98-95 triple overtime defeat at Pitt, the answers and lessons weren't very clear.

As sports fans, we like to package events neatly. Every win has to have a star, every loss has to have a blaming point or goat. There have to be "reasons" why a game is lost. Many times that true, but there are also losses that defy easy explanation.

Sometimes losses do highlight areas of play that can be improved. They can bring to light aspects of performance that haven't been tested yet, and can be practiced and improved. But really, was there anything different on display at the Peterson Events Center that Mountaineer fans haven't seen this year?

West Virginia again showed the ability to look like a potential Final Four team and a squad that might be one and done in its own league tournament, all in the space of the same game. It dominated the glass in regulation, and then couldn't get key defensive rebounds in overtime. And it simply gave the game away again at the free throw line, missing the front end of three consecutive one-and one chances with less than a minute to go in regulation, and stringing together an ugly 4-10 stretch over that period and parts of the first overtime.

When asked those questions after the game, stock answers were in evidence. The standard clichés about working harder and fixing mistakes were abundant, but really, was there much else to be said about giving a game away that was all but won? Forward Devin Ebanks finally admitted that the Mountaineers might have let up some in the final minute, especially after leading by seven points with 1:13 to go. But if WVU hasn't learned that it can't let up at any point in a Big East game (it has frittered away leads with uninspired and one-on-one dominated play more than once this season), is there any reason to expect that this game will be a wake-up call?

For this lesson to sink in, WVU should need only to take a look at the Big East conference standings. While the Mountaineers once looked to be a lock for a top four finish and the coveted double bye in the Big East tournament, they now will have to battle to hold on to one of the final two spots. Syracuse and Villanova are sure to claim two, but the Mountaineers, Georgetown and Pitt are all tied at 8-4, and Marquette and Louisville are only one game behind in the loss column. WVU has the chance to help itself down the stretch, with games remaining against two of those squads, but given its wildly inconsistent play to date, there's simply no way to predict how it will play down the stretch. Will it be the way it dominated the Panthers for much of the second half? Or will it be the meek play of the final minute, when all it managed to do was miss free throws, turn the ball over, leave foes uncovered and allow a thoroughly beaten team to get back in the game?

What makes this all the more frustrating is the fact that this West Virginia team is a good one. It is not an overpowering squad, but when it plays together, runs offense and works on defense, it is good enough to defeat just about any team in the country. But when those things go by the wayside, it can give away seven point leads in 73 seconds. That's the lesson that this Mountaineer team still has to learn, and if it doesn't, there are going to be more such results down the stretch.

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