Foul Trouble Changes Game As WVU’s Run Ends In Sweet 16
BOSTON – It was another valiant effort.
And another Sweet 16 loss for West Virginia as it fell 90-78 to top-seeded Villanova here on Friday night.
The Mountaineers gave an extreme effort, but the combination of foul trouble and inability to counter late when the Wildcats got hot ultimately denied the team for a third time in four years in trying to reach the Elite Eight. WVU looked primed to advance midway through the second half, leading 60-54 with 11 minutes left.
It had the game flow and play it wanted to that point. But it was then that adversity struck, as five quick whistles – three on Miles and one each on Carter and Konate – put the Mountaineers in major foul trouble and largely changed the complexion of the game. The four fouls on Miles put him on the bench while Carter and Konate had to continue to lay off.
Unable to play their intense, pressure style as needed, and with Villanova then able to make shots, the Wildcats went on a 22-6 run to take control at 76-66 on Jalen Brunsen’s three-pointer with 5:37 left. Though it wasn’t quite elementary from there, West Virginia simply couldn’t make shots while the ‘Cats stayed hot in never allowing the Mountaineers to get closer than seven points afterward.
“Unfortunately, we lost in the Sweet 16,” Carter said. “I felt like we gave it everything we had. We just didn’t make shots tonight, and Villanova did.”
This will be a game replayed in the mind with a series of what-ifs. What if Miles hadn’t been tagged for three fouls in less than three minutes. What if Carter wasn’t hamstrung all game with the same foul trouble? And, of course, there’s a credit to Villanova in wondering just how even a hot-shooting team can hit 50 percent from the floor – and an incredible 13-of-24 from three-point range for 54.2 percent.
“Sure, absolutely did,” Huggins said on if the foul calls changed the game. “I’m trying to say the right things. When the whistle keeps blowing, it really takes away your aggression. And then J.C. had three, Dax had four. They’re the heart and soul of this team. They’re the guys that everybody looks to. They’re the guys that who make things happen.”
WVU played well over the first 25 minutes of the game, and held a 52-50 lead at the 14-minute mark when it all slowly, methodically went south. The trio of fouls put Miles on the bench, forced Carter to again change the way he played and slowed the game action to the point where Villanova, already in the bonus a minute later, could get rest at the free throw line. It didn’t make much difference over the next few minutes as West Virginia took a team-high 60-54 lead with 11:08 left thanks to threes by Beetle Bolden and Esa Ahmad.
But suddenly, WVU went cold while Villanova started to hit shots. Whether the fouls played merely a part, or they were the key in a major 11-0 run is up for debate. But with Carter unable to attack as desired and Miles mired on the bench, the Wildcats turned a six-point deficit into a 65-60 lead with nine minutes left, and one could see the pattern that had developed and would continue down the stretch.
“We had shots. We didn’t make them,” Huggins said. “They made open shots. We didn’t make open shots. Man, at this time of year if you want to win in March, you have to make open shots. They made open shots, we didn’t. We got way more shots than they got. We just didn’t make them.
“We came into the Tournament shooting almost 77 percent from the free-throw line. We didn’t make free throws. Those things come back and bite you. You’ve got to continue to do fundamental things, and when you have open shots this time of year, and the further you go in the Tournament, there’s less and less open shots. So when you get one, you have to make it. They did. We didn’t.”
For the fifth-seeded Mountaineers (26-11), it was a disappointing, discouraging ending to a season that also leaves the lingering taste of what might have been. Close a handful of games out, and that five-seed becomes a four or a three. As it was, blown leads versus Kansas, Kentucky and Oklahoma State proved costly to seeding, and ultimately costly in the NCAA Tournament as WVU fell to the top overall seed left in the Dance in Villanova (33-4).
The Wildcats were the second-seed overall, behind Virginia, and entered on a 13-game wining streak. They left with another Elite Eight berth, their second in three seasons on the backs of the 2016 national title.
Miles scored 16 points in just 23 minutes of action, while Carter and Konate added 12 apiece and Esa Ahmad had 11. The Mountaineers not only got that much-needed fourth scorer, but managed a fifth in double figures as Teddy Allen netted 10 points. WVU entered 7-0 when it had at least four players in double digits.
Brunson did it all for Villanova, scoring a game-high 27 points – eight above his season average – while forward Omari Spellman tallied 18 and two others reached double figures. With their 50 percent shooting, the Wildcats become just the 65th WVU opponent in 385 games under Huggins to shoot that percentage or better while advancing to 12-0 on neutral courts this season.
“It’s everything,” Carter said of playing in the NCAAs. “Everybody is in tune with March Madness. I feel like it’s bigger than the NBA playoffs. Every game is on TV. Everybody’s talking about March. Anything can happen in March. A lot of upsets, games going down to the wire. It’s just a great atmosphere to play in.
“Mountaineer nation, man. They do an unbelievable job. They travel thousands of miles to come see us play, and I do my best to go out there and play hard and give them a good show to watch.”
West Virginia trailed 44-42 at the break after a blistering first half. Villanova started hot, hitting its first six shots to forge a 12-5 lead over the first four minutes. The Mountaineers failed to force a turnover during the stretch, and Nova was both getting solid looks around the bucket while being able to knock down even contested threes.
But as the ‘Cats began to naturally cool, WVU heated up and pieced together a 10-4 run behind a series of jumpers that drew the Mountaineers within 16-15. It would continue to be a back-and-forth affair from there s the teams stayed mostly red hot from the floor. While the Mountaineers missed a handful of threes, Villanova stayed on point behind Brunson and were only cooled for a brief period when West Virginia went to a 2-1-2 trap look in three-quarter quarter.
It backed off the initial pressure and allowed Carter to play a bit of centerfield near the midcourt line. The result was rushed passes into the middle of the floor by Nova, and the change in look spurred two turnovers during an 8-0 push that gave WVU the lead for just the second time in the game at 33-30 on a West lay-up with 5:15 left. The teams jockeyed from there, with Brunson’s seven points over the final four minutes pacing the Wildcats while West Virginia kept pace with a Carter stepback jumper and Ahmad’s tip-in and dunk to end the first half scoring.
The momentum carried into the second half, but the wall hit at the 11-minute mark was simply too much, as West Virginia ended its ninth NCAA appearance in the last 11 years with a 31-29 all-time mark in the tournament. Carter and Miles were the sixth and seventh Mountaineers to play in four NCAA Tournaments. The others are John Flowers, Cam Thoroughman, Jonnie West, Darryl Bryant and Kevin Jones.
*This was the 43rd meeting between WVU and Villanova with the Wildcats now holding a 23-20 lead dating back to 1956.
*WVU was one of nine schools to win 25 or more games four straight years. WVU is 105-39 since the 2014-15 season. The last time West Virginia won 25 or more games in four consecutive years was from 1957-60.
*The Mountaineers were trying to reach the Elite Eight for the first time since the 2010 Final Four season.
*Carter and Miles played in their 10th career NCAA Tournament game, tying for the most in school history.
*Carter is the only player in NCAA Tournament history to have at least 49 points, 13 assists & 11 steals through two games. No one in history has accomplished those numbers until the fourth game of the NCAA Tournament.