By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
“We’re so close. We’re so close. We’re so close to being pretty good. But, at the same time, we’re so far away.”
— West Virginia University basketball coach Bob Huggins after letting an upset of No. 20 Gonzaga slip through the Mountaineers’ fingers, 80-76, Tuesday night in the Coliseum.
West Virginia University had Gonzaga beaten.
Simple as that.
The Mountaineers were on their home court. They had a rowdy, twerking, boisterous crowd of 9,350 fans on their side, hooting and hollering the way Bob Huggins wanted them hooting and hollering.
Oh, and they also had a 10-point lead that they let slip away.
A great comeback by Gonzaga, a team that had beaten WVU by 57 points combined in the two schools’ previous meetings over the last two seasons?
You’d say so if you were Gonzaga.
Juwan Staten, the West Virginia point guard, thought otherwise.
“I think we were the ones who lost this game. I think we gave this game to Gonzaga. I don’t think they took it from us,” Staten said.
His coach, Huggins, would agree.
“It started when we didn’t get back on defense,” Huggins said. “We didn’t get back on defense when we shot a couple of air balls and were feeling sorry for ourselves.”
It’s hard to play basketball feeling sorry for yourself.
“It’s a selfish thing, and they are not selfish kids,” Huggins said, in one of his more contradictory statements, but he would explain.
“It’s a selfish thing when you stand there and feel sorry for yourself and don’t run back. Then all of a sudden you’ve got a game of five-on-four. It’s a game of numbers, and that’s what you want.
“It’s a learning experience. It’s happened to a bunch of great guys who came through here. It happened to KJ (Kevin Jones); it happened to Da’Sean (Butler); it happened to Joe Alexander. They are all used to being the best players on their team.”
It started with David Stockton, son of NBA Hall of Famer John Stockton, penetrating for a basket and WVU coming right back and topping it with a dunk from Terry Henderson that got the crowd revved.
“We stand there and yell at the crowd, and they come down and get fouled. That’s a selfish act, and they’re not selfish kids. We’ve got to cut that out,” said Huggins.
That’s when Kevin Pangos, their star who had been averaging 19.8 points a game, took over.
He had been strangely quiet until then, WVU’s defense slowing him down, but like all great players, when the game was on the line, he took it over completely, hitting a jumper and then three consecutive 3-point shots.
“The first one, we acted like we didn’t know who he was. We had no one around him,” said Huggins. “The third was baseline screens when we didn’t chase. If we had chased it, he probably curls in the lane and while he’s probably not going to get a shot, he’s going to get someone else a shot.”
Staten was far stronger in his assessment of the events.
“Everybody in the country knows when Gonzaga needs points they’re going to go to Pangos,” he said. “Even somebody who never has played basketball, if they watch the game, they know Pangos is going to shoot the ball.
“It’s unbelievable the five players we had on the court didn’t know he was going to shoot the ball. I don’t know that we didn’t know or lost him or we didn’t help … I just couldn’t see because I was guarding my man. I know we lost track of him, and he shot three pretty open shots.
“That’s about as open as he’d been all game, and it’s three crucial shots. It’s just a breakdown on defense.”
The difference was that Gonzaga found a way to get their star the ball, WVU’s star Eron Harris was being frustrated by not getting the ball in the second half. He had thrown down 18 points on 6-of-10 shooting in the first half, but in the second half was able to get off only five shots and add five points to his total.
Part of it was Gonzaga going to a 1-1-3 zone in the second half and concentrating on Harris, leaving other players open shots they could not make.
“We had wide-open shots. Gary Browne had wide-open shots. Devin Williams had wide-open shots. Gary’s been making them. Devin’s been making 16-, 17-foot shots. They didn’t fall,” Huggins said
That’s an understatement. Browne, who was shooting 53.7 percent for the season, hit 1-of-6 shots, a couple of them terribly off. Williams, the freshman, who was shooting 45.9 percent for the year, hit 3-of-13, which is half the percentage at 23.1 percent.
Combined the two went 4 of 19, which is 21.1 percent … yet you can’t fault them for shooting the shoots, as open as they were.
So it was this went down as another tough loss for the Mountaineers, who are now 6-4. Probably it was the toughest loss because they blew a lead.
“I think we can beat everybody we played to this point, given another chance, because we are continuing to get better and better and better. At the same time, we have to win enough games to be able to do that,” Huggins said.
He was referring to winning enough games to get into the NCAA Tournament, when can come across ranked teams like Wisconsin, Missouri and Gonzaga again.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.