By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
It was a basketball Saturday that was supposed to end in celebration for West Virginia University.
The Coliseum, for a change, was jammed, the season’s second largest crowd of 11,843 gathered to watch the dismantling of Baylor. There was a pre-game ceremony honoring wounded veterans, a halftime ceremony honoring basketball lettermen back as far as 1944 who returned for a reunion.
And it was followed by a post-game wake, not a celebration.
In the midst of it all, even with Eron Harris pouring in 32 points, West Virginia once again got kicked in its soft underbelly and fell, 88-75, putting a severe dent in the Mountaineers’ hopes for an NCAA bid and leaving them in a vulnerable position even as far as the NIT is concerned for with four games left they will be an underdog in three of them – at Iowa State, at Oklahoma and at home against Kansas.
Oh, for half the game, things were fine, WVU going into the locker room at halftime with a six-point advantage, one that would melt away like the piles of snow did as the weather turned warm, Baylor uncovering a secret weapon in Royce O’Neale who bombed away to perfection from the outside as he scored a season-high 22 points and continually hammering the ball inside for score after score after score.
Not that it was anything new.
Baylor outscored WVU in the paint 38-12 … and you could almost say that was a good game inside for the Mountaineers.
In the previous game, Texas outscored them 46-18 in the paint, so in those two losses they were outscored 84-30 inside, and that’s only touching the surface.
The Mountaineers somehow beat Oklahoma in overtime despite being outscored inside, 34-20, and beat Kansas State even though outscored in the paint, 48-26.
WVU was outscored in the paint in five of the past six games and the numbers are staggering, taking out the Iowa State game they were outscored 222-100.
So what if Eron Harris scores 32 points?
“It didn’t matter what I did because we lost,” he said.
Now it’s true that WVU had to play the game without Terry Henderson, who was out with the flu, and that had to hurt for WVU had no third scoring option, but it wasn’t scoring the ball that was the real problem.
Oh, everyone but Harris and Juwan Staten, who had another Player of the Year game with 16 points, six assists, one turnover and eight rebounds, was spectacularly bad shooting the ball … intimidated badly as Baylor blocked 10 of their shots, seven by Isaiah Austin.
The truth was that it was defense, or a lack of it, that cost WVU, Baylor shooting 54.2 percent from the floor and 45 percent from 3.
The Mountaineers just don’t match up inside.
“Size has been our downfall,” Staten said. “We aren’t big in the paint, and the players we have in the paint are young. They haven’t been through a full season, so they don’t really know what to look for as opposed to a guy that’s been in there a couple of years.”
It was a different strategy than the one Baylor used the first time the teams played and WVU won, 66-64, on a last-second reverse layup by Staten.
“They came out and really went inside,” Staten said. “First time we played them it seemed they shot a lot of perimeter shots.”
This time it was O’Neale from the perimeter, a rather startling development for WVU as in the first meeting he had played but seven minutes, took only two shots, scored only two points and offered very little else.
“He kind of surprised us,” Staten admitted. “You play them one time and he had two points. You watch tape and he never really could get going like that. For him to get going and hit shots like, it kind of raised a couple of eyebrows.”
And coach Bob Huggins’ blood pressure.
“Royce O’Neale has never shot like he did today,” Huggins said. “He was eight-for-eight today. They made shots. He hasn’t made shots like that all year. That put them ahead.”
“O’Neale wasn’t really scouted as a shooter,” Harris added. “We were going to see if he was going to make a couple … or make one, at least. He ended up making more than that.”
But the real problem was inside guys doing whatever they wanted to do, bodying up on Remi Dibo and Nathan Adrian and having their way with them, much to Huggins’ dismay.
Huggins blamed it on a lack of commitment from his players, not paying attention to the tendencies that had been pointed out in their opponents, not working hard enough away from the court.
“We had a week between games,” Huggins said. “I talked to them about our commitment to excellence. I said this last week, and I don’t want people to take it the wrong way, but we’re never going to have the five most-talented players in the country here. Most people will never have that. That doesn’t mean we can’t have the five guys that play the best. That takes commitment on their part.”
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.