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WVU basketball: Margin for error remains slim

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - There are many ways to look back on West Virginia's loss Thursday in the Big 12/SEC Challenge and most of them are probably correct.

The Mountaineers endured a staggeringly slow start that ultimately cost them the game against Missouri. Yet they were resilient again, as they were against Wisconsin, and shot, guarded and even rebounded their way back into things late in the game.

The Tigers led by 25 points with 9:45 left to play, but were defending WVU and a seven-point lead with a minute to go, where Juwan Staten, of all players, committed a critical turnover.

So WVU was either destructively erratic early or optimistically effective late. Or both. Maybe it was entirely uncharacteristic or more representative of the Mountaineers than a rather manageable schedule has thus far revealed.

What's certain, though, is that these Mountaineers, as constructed with a roster heavy on first-year players and perimeter scoring and light on experience and inside play, will have nights like that.

"I hope not," said Coach Bob Huggins, who takes another step into the deep end of the non-conference schedule with Tuesday's 9 p.m. home game against No. 19 Gonzaga (8-1). "It's happened a few times already."

Three times, in fact, for a team that's now 6-3 overall after the 80-71 loss to Missouri and 0-3 against teams from power conferences and with the three lowest shooting percentages of the season. Losses to Virginia Tech, Wisconsin and now Missouri were marked by stretches where WVU played well enough to win, but also poorly enough to lose. Each was missing that one sequence where the Mountaineers bridged the good play to a winning conclusion.

"When things get tough, we are able to come back and get in the game, but we can't spend the whole season trying to come back every single game," said sophomore guard Eron Harris, who personified WVU's trouble against Missouri and its 3-2 zone with a season-low eight points on 3-for-6 shooting.

The Mountaineers led Virginia Tech by 17 points in the first half Nov. 12 and trailed by 14 in the second half, but was within a point late in an 87-82 loss. In the championship game of the Cancun Challenge Nov. 27, WVU trailed Wisconsin by 17 in the first half, but was within four points late in a 70-63 loss.

The trouble was evident early against the Tigers. WVU didn't make score a point for five minutes and didn't make a basket for another two minutes after that, but Huggins sensed trouble even earlier.

"To start the game, we force them into taking a hard shot, and they miss, and we don't block out," Huggins said. "They rebound and score."

The Tigers won the rebounding battle 40-32, which was something the Mountaineers were prepared to deal with, so much so that they ended up with more offensive rebounds (14-11) and more second-chance points (18-16).

"The second possession, we get Staten isolated against a big man and he didn't attack him," Huggins said.

Staten's drives had been among WVU's best offensive weapons this season, but he backed away early and often and didn't score on a drive to the basket until the middle of the second half. That was right about when the Mountaineers got rolling and Staten, Terry Henderson and Gary Browne started scoring.

The early errors and the eventual enormous deficit were too much to escape.

"It says a lot about our lack of maturity," Huggins said. "We've got to try to depend on somebody. Eron and Terry playing the minutes they played a year ago, you'd hope they would stay more in character. Obviously, they didn't. You can't get out of character. We've got to hope our five guys play better than their five guys."

The Mountaineers entered the game shooting 49.2 percent from the floor (No. 43 nationally) and 46.5 percent from 3-point range (No. 3). They shot 41.9 percent overall and missed 15 of 19 3-point shots. Harris, Henderson, Browne, Remi Dibo and Nathan Adrian, who all have made at least three 3s in a game this season, were a combined 3-for-17.

The margin for error remains small enough that WVU can't shoot poorly and play poorly on top of that, whether early or late in a game.

"I think sometimes, particularly with young guys, and as many young guys as we have, you try to do things you can't do," Huggins said. "We did everything we can't do. We were shooting step-back shots, step-back 3s off the dribble. You're not going to make those. But we didn't move the ball to get (Missouri) to open up - and not to take anything from them, because they did a good job - but we don't need to manufacture shots we can't make."

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at mikec@dailymailwv.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.charlestondailymail.com/wvu.

 


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