You could feel it coming.
West Virginia shot 58% from the field in the first half in building a 47-35 lead against Marquette on Friday night in the Shriners Children’s Classic in Charleston, South Carolina, but behind that good news were some disturbing rumbles. WVU’s defense, a shaky proposition other than some on-ball pressure up top and a blocked shot or two at the rim, wasn’t exactly forcing Marquette into bad offense. Rather, the Golden Eagles were simply missing some shots they might ordinarily make – and they made enough to keep in contact with the streaking Mountaineers.
Second, Shaka Smart’s MU squad had rallied from double-digit deficits in each of its two previous games to produce wins, so it wasn’t as if there was any panic as they headed to the locker room.
Third, WVU has shown major drop-offs in second-half performances in all of its games this season.
And unfortunately, all of those omens proved accurate. In the second half, West Virginia’s shooting cooled, its defense regressed to that of middle school level, and Marquette rallied to win going away, 82-71.
The numbers were horrendous.
Marquette (5-0) made 64% of its shots from the field (16-25) in the second half. Included in that was an 8-13 showing from 3-point range, with almost every attempt uncontested as WVU could not recover from helping on penetration or ball movement to contest shooters. It took the Golden Eagles just four and a half minutes to turn a 13 point deficit into a one-point lead as they went on a 20-6 run.
“They were all penetrate-and-pitch shots. We got straight-lined whoever touched the ball,” head coach Bob Huggins noted afterward. “We were active in the first half but not the second. We stood around. How many times did they drive it to the goal and one of our guys get there to stop it and the rest of our guys stood there and watched while they dunked it?”
West Virginia’s inability to stop, or slow, drives into the lane and at the rim forced defenders to help, which left shooters open on the perimeter. After a while, even the help disappeared, and Marquette was able to get open shots with just two or three passes. The Golden Eagles scored on 20 of their 31 second-half possessions and averaged a stratospheric 1.5 points per possession.
“It’s a barrage of straight lines,” Huggins reiterated. “Then our guys, the ones who are awake, jump in to help and they throw it to their man who makes threes.”
WVU (3-1) missed six of its last seven shots from the field and didn’t score from the field in the last 3:39 of the game.
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WVU’s defensive effort was hampered by the limited playing time of Kedrian Johnson, who encountered early foul trouble for the second consecutive game. He played just three minutes in the first half before going to the bench with two fouls, and got just nine in the second while being whistled twice more. West Virginia’s best on-ball defender finished the game with no steals.
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After an encouraging start to the season in which he was under control on drives to the basket and shot attempts in the lane, Gabe Osabuohien has reverted to his play of earlier years. Out-of-control drives and ill-considered double-pump shots led to a handful of empty possessions.
Make no mistake – WVU needs Osabuohien on the floor. He’s invaluable in many ways. But if he gives the ball up on the offensive end, he negates a percentage of the many positive contributions he makes.
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Complacency? Lack of consistency? Averaging out? For whatever the reason, WVU has played well in the first half of all of its games this year, including the public and private scrimmages it has participated in. Then, the roof either sags or falls in.
“Every game we have played we’ve come out and played as well as could be in the first half and then been flat in the second half,” Huggins said. “We have not played a second half yet. But what am I supposed to do, go in there and scream and yell and jump up and down and throw things when we are up 12?”
He’ll try to figure out an answer in the day and a half before the Mountaineers’ final game in the Classic, which comes Sunday against Clemson at 5 p.m.