By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
One of the greatest careers in West Virginia University basketball history came to a sudden and disheartening end Thursday night at the Consol Energy Center when Gonzaga raced to an embarrassingly easy 77-54 victory to eliminate Kevin Jones and his Mountaineers from the NCAA Tournament.
It was the fourth-worst beating West Virginia has taken in NCAA play, and it came in a game that had been rated a tossup by the oddsmakers.
The Mountaineers led only once, 2-0, in the game and were completely demolished by halftime, trailing, 40-22, shooting only 23.1 percent and playing such bad defense that it led coach Bob Huggins to term this his “worst defensive team I’ve had in 30 years.”
Jones scored only 13 points on 5-of-14 shooting to finish his career with 1,822 points, fifth on the all-time WVU list, while his senior partner Truck Bryant scored only 9 off a dismal 2-of-10 shooting performance, ending his career with 1,590 points.
Asked the thoughts that were going through his mind in the closing seconds as his career at WVU was coming to an end, Jones replied:
“Just that this is it. I couldn’t imagine sharing my career with a great teammate like Truck, great friend, a coach like Coach Huggins, who has taught me a lot the last four years. It was kind of a sad and emotional moment. I know I got another career ahead of me. I’ve just got to think about that right now. But I’ll never forget the memories here, like I said.”
Certainly it will be a while before he can shake the memories of this game and of the way the Mountaineer team imploded down the stretch, losing 8 of their final 12 games. They lost any semblance of an ability to score, which allowed Gonzaga and other opponents to devise schemes to limit Jones’ output.
Gonzaga did it better than most, always having someone doubling down on him.
“It was frustrating, because, you know, you feel like you’re open, you’re posting your heart out, and your teammates aren’t throwing it to you,” Jones said. “But you don’t see there’s like two other guys behind you, so you get mad. But there’s really nothing they can do. I would say that’s probably one of the best jobs a team has done on me on team defense, surrounding me whenever I got the ball. It was definitely frustrating.”
There is a way to counter that, making a few shots, but WVU has been impotent on the offensive end for the last month of the season, which took away any and all options.
“We can’t spread anybody because we haven’t made shots,” Huggins said. “We haven’t made shots for a month. When we were playing better, we made some shots. Jabarie made some shots, Aaron Brown made some shots. We just haven’t made shots.
“I mean, we’re trying to spread people, and they’re taking guys that are away from the ball and they’re standing right behind K.J. He had three guys on him. Smart thing to do. Finally at the end I said, ‘Skip it, skip it.’ We finally skipped it, still didn’t make any. Why worry about it if the guys aren’t going to make shots?”
At the same time, everything Gonzaga threw up went in. They had four players – Elias Harris, Robert Sacre, Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. – score between 10 and 14 points, and they had six players account for their nine 3-point baskets.
“They ran good offense. You know, (coach Mark Few) said to me that’s the best they’ve shot the ball all year. You know, we try to do a good job scouting. You can’t let guys that are gonna drive it right, drive it right. You have to make people uncomfortable. They’ve got skilled guys. You try to take their tendencies away. We didn’t do as good a job. The truth of the matter is it’s kind of a microcosm of our season. This is the worst defensive team I’ve ever had in 30 years.”
The combination was deadly, bad offense, worse defense.
The first half turned into a circus, raining 3s on the Mountaineers when Gonzaga decided it wasn’t going to get a dunk or a layup. They hit 6 of 10 in the half; WVU hit 3 of 17 for the game.
It was literally over by halftime.
“Yeah, there was always a feeling of frustration throughout the whole game,” Jones said. “It was definitely desperation during the second half. We were down by so many points. We weren’t playing defense. They came out tougher, more aggressive, more energized than we were. You see the result of it. They were the better team.”
And, quite surprisingly, they were the tougher team.
“I think we knew they were going to come out aggressive just by the way they were talking before the game, very aggressive and tough-minded,” Jones said. “They stayed that way throughout the whole game. That’s something that we didn’t do. They played better team basketball than we did. That really helped them. They shared the ball. They found open guys, and the guys made shots.”
“In all my years here, this had to been the roughest year to think about getting out-toughed. It’s never happened to us before. We just got out-toughed tonight. That’s how it really was,” Bryant added.
So now it’s over, the season and Jones and Bryant’s careers. They will move on and try to make it on the professional level, while Huggins will spend his time trying to figure out how to fix what’s wrong with his team.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.