By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
West Virginia’s basketball team has a split personality.
While authoring a 9-11 record that included any number of close losses such as Monday night’s 61-56 defeat at home to No. 2 Kansas, the Mountaineers have been a perplexing team that would play well in spurts but overall would be exasperating to its coach and its fans.
“I just never know what we are going to do. It seems like when we have made shots, we miss free throws. When the offense kind of ran, we didn’t guard,” Coach Bob Huggins said.
In truth, they lost the Kansas game in the first nine minutes as they fell behind 14-2 without so much as scoring a field goal for a student section that was so revved up that it offered them enough energy to pull off what would have been a monumental upset on national television.
“They scored the ball by layups, had easy transition baskets,” guard Gary Browne said. “We just didn’t come to play hard the first eight minutes. Then we came back. We just gave it away.”
It was during that spell, a time when no one did much of anything right, including Aaric Murray, who would recover to play what well may have been his finest game as a Mountaineer with 17 points and seven rebounds, that Kansas established enough of a mental and emotional feeling of confidence that it could withstand the run WVU put on in the second half.
And close the Mountaineers did, cutting the gap to two points but unable to slash the KU jugular.
Those early eight minutes, though, were horrid as WVU continually made silly mistakes, crosscourt passes from big men like Murray and Deniz Kilicli that Kansas would intercept and take the length of the court for layups.
“You can’t throw them the ball. We throw them the ball,” Huggins said. “That’s the way it is, they shoot 54 percent, we shoot 37. Why am I going to throw it inside so those guys can throw it to people for layups? Throw it out of bounds, kick it up in the stands ... do something and get back a guard.
“That’s the worst play in basketball, throwing the ball to the other guy for a layup ... and we’re good at it.”
Once WVU got itself settled in, once Murray and Huggins figured out how to co-exist, the comeback began and it was quite a rally for a team that easily just could have quit.
The Mountaineers rushed back into contention as Murray moved outside and began hitting 3s. WVU, in fact, finished the game with four 3-point shots made — all by their centers. Murray had three of them, Kevin Noreen one.
The guards were 0 for 7, another sign of just how bewitched and bewildered this team is.
In truth, Huggins’ game plan was to try and get some outside shooting from his big men because the outside shooting throughout the season has been so horrid that defenses are packing it tightly inside and letting the guards shoot their 3s.
“Coach wanted to stretch the defense because he knew they would pack it in,” Murray said. “He said if they stay back, shoot it in.”
That helped get the crowd into it even more and as the crowd roared, so did the Mountaineer comeback. They came out in the second half, even though down eight, believing they had a shot at winning the game.
“It was on our game plan to come out and attack them and not let them come out and get on us like they did in the first half,” Murray said. “(Coach Huggins) kept emphasizing if we stepped our defense up we could win the game.”
And with 10:18 left guard Juwan Staten hit a jumper that was called a 3-point shot and brought WVU to within a point ... until the officials took a long look at a replay and changed the call to a 2-point basket.
In truth, the officials played a big role in this game. That delay sucked some of the momentum from the WVU rally, acting almost as a time out for Kansas, and then there was the matter of fouls that were called and free throws that were shot.
“Did I think they would shoot 34 free throws and we shoot 15? No,” said Huggins, bluntly but without offering criticism of the way the game was called. “We have, up until about a week ago, made more free throws than our opponents have taken. We were No. 1 in the power six conferences.”
In truth, had Kansas made more than 18 of its 34 free throws, this would have been a runaway for the Jayhawks.
“If we make our free throws in the first half we probably could have scored 44 or 45 points,” Kansas coach Bill Self admitted, and the lead would have been 14 or 15 instead of eight at the half, the wind perhaps taken out of any WVU rally before it started.
Now, though, WVU has to regroup and try to salvage what is left of a year in which they are 2-5 in Big 12 play and 9-11, a year in which making the NIT might even be a battle.
Can this Kansas game help?
Murray believes it can.
“For me, it gives me something to say to the freshmen. I can tell them they played good against the No. 2 team in the country, so who do we have left? We can use that as motivation to let us know how good we are and where we stand,” he said.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.