“Truth of the matter is they are just better than we are.”
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – The was an undeniable truth to head coach Bob Huggins’ comments following West Virginia’s 83-76 loss to Kentucky.
Sure, these Wildcats were unranked for the first time in three years. They started five freshmen and their top six scorers are first- or second-year players. But they also have elite level talent mixed with the physical size and length that’s the envy of most other programs. What that adds to is something that’s a bit tough for WVU to swallow, especially with veteran guards and a shot blocker like Sags Konate which anchored a run to a top two ranking before the recent skid.
“The truth of the matter is they are just better than we are,” Huggins said. “They are more talented. We outrebound them by one in the first half and get outrebounded by 16 in the second half. We couldn’t keep them off the glass. I thought we tried to run offense in the first half. Did a pretty good job of running offense. Then we didn’t run offense in the second half. They took us out of it and we had guy who were going to be heros instead of team players.”
The mixed messages in that statement show much. First, Kentucky is a very skilled group. What they lack is more the product of youth and not having played together for even 25 games of yet. But it’s also true that when West Virginia was playing consciously, in a deliberate and intelligent way that also had solid doses of effort and execution, the Mountaineers were dominant.
West Virginia built a 17 points lead twice in the second half before watching the Wildcats rally behind some streaky three-point shooting and a career-best 34 points from 6-foot-9 forward Kevin Knox. WVU had no answer for UK’s size on the frontline once Sags Konate was in foul trouble, and Kentucky used that to ride a 26-14 edge in second chance points that helped the ‘Cats outscore West Virginia 50-28 in the second half, including a stretch of 21 of the game’s 23 points.
“The whole thing was don’t leave Knox, and I don’t even think we knew where he was,” Huggins said. “He’s the guy who was making shots. We can’t keep (Wenyen) Gabriel off the glass. Those two guys killed us. They are 18-for-18 from the foul line and that hadn’t happened in how long? I watched the South Carolina game and they didn’t make any. They make 18-for-18 against us. We put them at the line.”
Indeed, Knox lit up the Mountaineers on 11-for-17 shooting, including five 3-pointers. He also hit seven free throws and managed seven rebounds. In all, Kentucky saw five players with at least five rebounds, led by 11 from Jarred Vanderbilt (including seven on offense) and nine from Gabriel.
“I was getting ill. They manhandled our forwards,” Huggins said. “Manhandled them. We got outrebounded by 16 in the second half. Sixteen. And we shot 32 percent in the second half. How are you going to win? They’re good.
“We are playing better teams. Kansas is a talented group. Kentucky is a very talented group. The other (losses) were on the road and we didn’t play very well. We haven’t made a shot. We were making shots. Now we aren’t making shots. That happens so you have to do other things to compensate. I thought when we ran offense, when we ran what I asked them to run, we had some success.”
As it is, the Mountaineers have lost four of five and are facing a road trip to Iowa State. At 16-5 overall, and in a four-way tie for second place in the Big 12 at 5-3, West Virginia is still in solid shape. But the confidence has been shaken since the 15-game winning streak, and it stands to reason the conference itself will loose some luster after dropping six of the 10 games in the Big 12/SEC Challenge.
As for Kentucky, who was playing in Morgantown for the first time in 48 years, it has now won three straight series games since WVU’s Elite Eight victory. This marked the first time the teams met in the regular season since 2009, when the Wildcats beat West Virginia in the title game of the Las Vegas Invitational.
“It’s about team and being able to win,” Huggins said. “The truth is they are better than we are. They are more talented. So we have to do things right. Our shot selection has to be really good, and we have to make a conscious effort to block out and keep people off the glass.”