Mountaineers Unprepared, Outtoughed In Garden Meeting With St. John’s
NEW YORK — West Virginia’s players knew it was coming. Its head coach knew it was coming. Yet despite all the warnings, the Mountaineers were singularly unprepared to handle the pressure, speed and fierce competitiveness of a middling St. John’s team. The result? An ugly 70-68 loss that could weigh heavily in WVU’s postseason hopes and destination.
This isn’t to say the Mountaineers (7-1) are now on the outside looking in. There are still many games left to play. However, WVU’s inability to internalize the warnings of its coaches speaks mightily about where this team currently stands.
“We can’t come out flat like we did,” WVU senior guard Chase Harler said following West Virginia’s puzzling performance. “We dug ourselves holes. It was just us making bad passes. Twenty-two turnovers aren’t going to win a lot of games.”
“Our preparation wasn’t very good and we weren’t ready to go,” head coach Bob Huggins stated flatly. “I told those guys yesterday. I told them you are taking a heck of a chance, and you are going to go in there and get whacked because you aren’t ready to play.”
The Jonnies, on the other hand, came out playing hard, and imposed their will on the Mountaineers. Playing a frenetic style that didn’t produce a lot of traps in the backcourt, the pressure they applied affected WVU’s halfcout offense dramatically. West Virginia was sped up, took hurried shots and was stripped from behind repeatedly as the Red Storm (8-2) kept themselves in the game, forging a 36-36 tie at the half while earning 15 steals and forcing those 22 West Virginia miscues.
“They were really aggressive. They got every loose ball in the first half and maybe one in the second half,” Huggins noted.
One sequence in particular haunted WVU.
“We miss a dunk, and they come down and score,” Huggins said of a first-half momentum switch where Oscar Tshiebwe’s slam attempt rattled off the rim and turned into a runout by St. John’s, which hit the ensuing lay-up. “That’s where they kind of got their confidence.”
While WVU didn’t lose touch on the scoreboard at that moment, Huggins felt it set a tone with his team might, repeat might, have been ready to get into rhythm.
Instead, and perhaps emboldened, St. John’s came out with even more intensity in the second half, gradually building a lead that moved to as much as ten points with 7:50 to go. West Virginia then rallied, and finally forged a tie on Sean McNeil’s 3-pointer from in front of the WVU bench with 1:13 to go. From there, though, execution errors again reared their head. WVU missed a jumper and couldn’t control the rebound, and after St. John’s Rasheem Dunn made two free throws off a controversial foul call on Derek Culver, the Mountaineers failed to drive the ball to the basket as Huggins asked, settling for a sideways fading jumper from Deuce McBride that bounded harmlessly away.
Culver had a monster game, scoring 12 points and grabbing 18 rebounds. Tshiebwe had eight points and six rebounds, but also suffered five turnovers, as did Culver, who was frustrated by the clutch-and-grab defensive tactics of the home team. Sean McNeil had a career-high 13 points on the strength of four 3-pointers, two in each half. All came at big moments, with the first pair keeping WVU in the game in the first 20 minutes while the last two helped fuel the late rally.
West Virginia also suffered at the free throw line, where it made just five of its 12 free throws. St. John’s countered with a 22-of-27 performance.
The stunning loss could have far-reaching repercussions.
“I feel like this was a wake-up call to be sure,” Culver said of the loss. “We realized we aren’t as good as we think we are. We have to go back to the drawing board and figure things out. I would rather not lose, but we have to go back and figure out what we are going to do.”
“Our execution really sucked,” Huggins said, succinctly summing up his team’s performance. “Defensively we were really bad and offensively we were worse.”