MORGANTOWN, W.Va.– Following West Virginia’s 72-70 loss to Texas, Mountaineer players and coaches were quick to deflect the blame from forward Emmitt Matthews, who missed a pair of free throws with 10.8 seconds to play that, if successful, would have put them up by three points.
Both players and head coach Bob Huggins pointed out that wasn’t what lost the game, and in that they were 100% correct.
Certainly, WVU had many other errors, especially down the stretch, that gift-wrapped the victory for the Longhorns. Leading by five points with 1:41 to play, the Mountaineers missed their final five combined shots. They gave up the last of a number of easy straight-line drives to the ‘Horns that allowed an open lay-up to cut the lead to one with 55 seconds to go, and with that in the back of their minds, they had three defenders collapse to the rim after another blow-by by Courtney Ramey, who found teammate Andrew Jones for a wide open winning 3-pointer with 1.8 seconds to go.
Those last two plays were illustrative of the biggest problem for the Mountaineers on the day. It’s the real reason for the loss and is the biggest Achilles heel for the team this year. It struggles to prevent straight line drives, has difficulty keeping opposing dribblers out of the lane, and thus yields a number of shots close to the hoop.
Texas shot 46.6% from the field despite making only four of 19 attempts from 3-point range. The Longhorns were 23 of 39 on two-pointers (59%) and had far too many takes that were not strongly contested.
That this was going to be an issue all day was apparent from the start. Texas’ first seven shots of the game were either lay-ups right at the rim or dunks. The Mountaineer defense appeared powerless to keep the Longhorns out of the lane, despite working specifically on UT’s action on the perimeter.
“They ran this little ghost screen action where it’s a slip screen, and they do it all the time,” WVU guard Taz Sherman said of the Longhorn tactic that confounded the Mountaineers for much of the day. “The way we guard ball screens kind of contradicted what they do on offense. I felt like we did a good job at some points in the game of stopping that and rotating out to shooters and the roll man.”
Again, that’s a fair assessment, and one that mirrors West Virginia’s defensive play as a whole this year. At times, the Mountaineers are able to enforce their will on the opposition, take away its favored sets and make it uncomfortable. At other times, though, it’s a lay-up line.
“They kept using those fake screens to get downhill, and their guards are really good at finishing and also passing it out to shooters,” Sherman analyzed.
It’s clear that a major component of the Texas game plan was to drive it at WVU as much as possible. Without a shot blocker to defend the paint (and that’s not a criticism of any of WVU’s forwards; it’s just a reality of their skills), Texas was able to put up short runners or get all the way to the hoop. The ‘Horns finished with 40 points in the paint, and as many of those came from guards as they did from UT’s big men.
UT’s final two possessions went back to the same script, with two different successful results. Both involved drives by Ramey, who had the relatively easy lay-up with 55 seconds to go, then the assist to the wide open Jones for the game winner.
Sherman pointed out that it’s difficult to guard a team that has five good scorers on the floor, and that’s another correct evaluation of the afternoon’s action. Texas had five players in double figures, and with some combination of four of those on the court for much of the time, a tough choice was presented to Mountaineer defenders. Sag and help against drivers who routinely beat initial defenders, thus opening 3-point chances, or eschew help principles and hope for some missed short shots? Neither is the preferential choice for any coach, least of all Bob Huggins, who noted that he is left with man-to-man after trying other defenses this year.
“I don’t know what else to do. I’ll be blunt with you. We tried 1-2-2; it didn’t work. We tried 3-2 zone; it didn’t work. We tried 1-3-1; it didn’t work. We tried to press; that didn’t work We are what we are,” said Huggins.
Huggins’ list of everything he has tried this year is significant. So too is the fact that even with the problems of Saturday’s game, the Mountaineers were still one missed shot away from sending No. 4 Texas, a good team by all accounts, home with a loss.
“We’re still pretty damn good by the way. We haven’t lost to chumps,” said Huggins.
Again, correct. This WVU team has talent, and it had every chance to win even with Kedrian Johnson limited to only five minutes, reportedly due to flu symptoms. However, the biggest truth of all was that West Virginia has to figure out a way to keep the ball from being driven into the lane and at the hoop so easily. It was the biggest reason for the Texas loss and will cause others if it can’t be corrected.