By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
What West Virginia hoped would be a lively run to Madison Square Garden, one of the cathedrals of college basketball and home to the Final Four of the NIT, became instead a screeching end to the Mountaineers’ season with an ugly 77-65 loss to Georgetown in a dilapidated bandbox of a gymnasium on the Hoyas’ Washington, D.C., campus.
It was a disappointing conclusion to what could have been an encouraging season, WVU losing a number of close games early in the year and then completely falling apart down the stretch, losing seven of its last 10 games, all of them by 10 or more points.
The final record was 17-16, an improvement over last season’s 13-19 that ended with seven straight defeats and no post-season play, but hardly enough to satisfy a Mountaineer fan base that has seen both its football and basketball programs deteriorate since an Orange Bowl victory over Clemson in 2011 and a Final Four appearance in 2010.
To make matters even worse, the loss came to a Georgetown team that was not particularly good, at 17-14 entering the game, out of the Big East Conference, the league WVU left and billed it as a step up.
Juwan Staten, a junior who says he will look into leaving for the NBA, meaning this could have been his final WVU game, led the Mountaineers with 23 points and dished out seven assists.
Terry Henderson, who has fought to come back from a late-season illness that kept him out of four games, had a solid performance with 13 points while Remi Dibo scored 11 points in a first half that saw the Mountaineers build a 33-30 lead but could not score in the second half.
Once again Eron Harris struggled on the road, finishing with 10 points.
The Mountaineers finished the season in almost give-up mode, playing almost embarrassingly soft and without any mental conviction down the stretch as Huggins failed over and over to get to them and turn them into his kind of team.
“After we lost in Kansas City I’m in the hotel and had five or six NBA general managers come up to me and say, ‘That’s not your team.’ They were used to seeing us with what they said was ‘swagger.’ We walked in with no fear. We didn’t fear anybody. You can’t do that when you haven’t paid the price,” Huggins said.
And, in the end, this team he felt did not pay the price.
“They’re good guys,” he said, “but the bottom line is we have to get worlds better if we are going to do what we want to do.”
To do that, Huggins said, it is up to the players.
“I can’t do it. I used to think I could get anybody to play. But I can’t. After last year, that was the first time that ever happened to me. We have to find a way to be special again, a way to be what we want all Mountaineers to be,” he said.
McDonough Arena was all it was cracked up to be … and less, a 2,500-seat gym better suited to volleyball than basketball that actually could cram only 2,133 in for this game.
The facility did have an interesting history and this game did not threaten to displace any of it as a memorable event.
Indeed, back in 1952 when the building was new it played host to one of President Dwight Eisenhower’s inaugural balls and it has hosted some rocking concerts over the years, going back to Count Basie to the Who, the Grateful Dead and Bruce Springsteen.
In music terms, the Mountaineers on this night were more Julius LaRosa than Springsteen.
What bothered Coach Bob Huggins most wasn’t anything about the basketball that would be played in the outdated, undersized facility. It was that WVU was granted only 150 tickets.
“I want to say this. This is a shame to come here with our fan base here,” he said. “The [Mountaineer] Maniacs, they have been wonderful. They emailed me all day saying how they wanted to be here. They are the best student group in years and haven’t been able to get tickets. I feel bad for them.”
In the end, though, what mattered was what transpired on the floor and that began with the health of Staten, who left the Texas loss with an ankle injury late in the second half and with his availability for this game in doubt.
By game time the ankle was fine, but he had another worry, having been kneed in the thigh during the afternoon shoot around.
Staten was the key to the WVU offense against a Georgetown defense that likes to press.
“As long as we keep Juwan Staten on the floor we won’t have any problems. He’s hard to press,” Huggins said.
And that was how it worked out in the first half as WVU squeezed out a 33-30 halftime lead.
Staten bounced back from his 1-for-11 shooting game against Texas by scoring 15 points in that first half, which is one more point than the entire Mountaineer team scored against Texas in the Big 12 Tournament.
But that was Texas and this is Georgetown and no one will confuse the two.
While Staten dominated, Remi Dibo got off to a shaky start for WVU but came on big time. After missing a wide open 3, turning the ball over and committing a foul in the first minute and a half, Dibo stabilized himself and finished the half with 11 points.
If they could have found Eron Harris it would have been a rout but Harris continued his inexplicably bad play on the road, hitting only one basket for three points in the first half. That came out of the Texas game when he scored but 3 points all game and 5 points at Oklahoma.
Still, the Mountaineers felt good with a 3-point bulge but Georgetown just overwhelmed them in the second half, outscoring them, 47-32.
Georgetown’s D’Vaunte Smith-Rivera buried the Mountaineers under 32 points, coming just two games after Andrew Wiggins scored 41 against them.
The Hoyas will continue in the NIT and face No. 1 seed Florida State in Tallahassee while WVU spends its down time looking for some answers.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.