By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
Just when West Virginia University was beginning to believe it had a chance to have an impact down the stretch and play its way into contention for a spot in the NCAA Tournament, Baylor knocked some reality into the Mountaineers, ending their three-game winning streak with an impressive 80-60 victory in Waco, Texas.
The Bears never trailed after scoring the game’s first seven points and while WVU was game through the first half and hung close early in the second half, a bombardment of 3-point shots from Brady Heslip opened the gap while time after time Baylor found ways to break loose players for wide-open thunderous dunks.
That WVU spent much of the night with key players in foul trouble and turned the basketball over 18 times did nothing to ease the burden on the Mountaineers.
“We just throw the ball around. We don’t pass the ball; we throw the ball,” coach Bob Huggins said. “We’ve got guys wide open everywhere. It’s sickening to watch. It’s sickening. It’s not basketball.
“It’s like guys who never played who go to the YMCA. That’s what we play like. I shouldn’t say that, I know, because I get all the crap … but oh man.”
The loss evened WVU’s record at 12-12 while the Mountaineers fell beneath .500 in the Big East at 5-6. Baylor jumped to 16-8 and 7-4 in conference play.
West Virginia was outscored 49-33 in the second half, riding a change in momentum that came in the closing seconds of the first half on a 3-point basket that came just before the buzzer with the Bears feeling the hot breath of the Mountaineers on their necks just a point behind.
While Heslip hit 6 of 9 3s and finished with 20 points, the two key 3-point shots in the game did not come from him. It was Gary Franklin who canned the 3 just before the half and 7-foot,1-inch center Isaiah Austin who opened the second half by hitting a 3.
Those consecutive baskets turned a one-point advantage into a 7-point lead and delivered the message that Baylor was not about to let the Mountaineers continue their winning ways.
“When things don’t go our way we don’t fight through them very well. You go over to the bench and I’m trying to get them going. … ‘Don’t quit, we’re in it, we’re in it, we’re in it.’ And they’re not ready to fight through it,” Huggins said.
West Virginia squandered a lot of chances to grab a lead at the half after playing from behind throughout, Juwan Staten and Jabarie Hinds missing three chances to score as Baylor protected a one-point advantage.
Given the ball back, the Bears got the ball into the hands of Franklin for a three just before the buzzer to take a hard-fought 31-27 lead into the locker room.
WVU had battled hard on defense through that first half and shot better than 50 percent before missing its final three shots.
The Mountaineers had the game going in their favor as far as pace and style of play, which was ragged, but they killed themselves with 10 turnovers.
They also could not keep either of their two biggest players, Kevin Noreen and Aaric Murray, on the court for any length of time, the two collecting three fouls each and sitting far too long.
Jabarie Hinds led WVU with eight first-half points as he continued his resurgence while Dominique Rutledge gave the Mountaineers valuable play off the bench with the other bigs in trouble, leading in rebounds with five and scoring five points.
The bench was big for WVU in the half as it contributed six of the team’s seven assists, the starting five having only one assist while turning the ball over eight times.
Eron Harris led WVU with 19 points while Deniz Kilicli had a solid evening with 13 points and five rebounds. Baylor’s Pierre Jackson, who leads the Big 12 in scoring and assists, was off in his shooting but finished with 15 points and nine assists.
Rico Gathers came off the bench for the Bears to hit 7 of 8 field goals and 8 of 10 free throws for 22 points while gathering nine rebounds.
NOTES: WVU used the same starting lineup for the fourth straight game – guards Gary Browne, Jabarie Hinds and Eron Harris, forwards Deniz Kilicli and Kevin Noreen. … The game’s first nine field goals were scored by nine different players. … WVU is 5-2 on Wednesdays this season. … WVU went into the game without a player averaging double-figure points, Aaric Murray the leading scorer coming off the bench at 9.5 per game. WVU is the only team in a Power 6 conference without a double-figure scorer, …WVU guard Gary Browne came out with a whopper of a shiner from taking an elbow in practice this week that required stitches. … Aaric Murray limited his first-half playing time by committing a pair of fouls within 15 seconds of each other, sending himself to the bench. Then, when he came off the bench, he immediately committed a third rebounding foul. … Another big, Kevin Noreen, also was forced to the bench with three fouls in the first half.