Even under the best of circumstances, West Virginia’s 2021-22 Big 12 opener at No. 17 Texas was going to be difficult.
The difficulty meter ramped up even further before 11-1 WVU even arrived in Austin, though, as three Mountaineers – senior guard Taz Sherman, senior forward Gabe Osabuohien and freshman guard Kobe Johnson – had to remain in Morgantown because of COVID protocols.
Heck, Mountaineer Sports Network color commentator Jay Jacobs also couldn’t make the trip because of those protocols.
Jacobs hasn’t scored a point in a Mountaineer uniform in 62 years, but the absence of the other three certainly impacted WVU’s on-floor performance. In particular, the loss of Sherman, who is the second-leading scorer in the league with an average of 20.9 points per game, was detrimental to West Virginia’s offense and its upset hopes.
Thus, without Taz and company, the Longhorns were able to stifle WVU’s offense in cruising to a 74-59 victory at the Frank Erwin Center.
“Taz and Gabe are our two senior leaders, our veterans, so it was a struggle without them. Then Kobe brings a lot to the table as well,” stated West Virginia sophomore forward Jalen Bridges. “It was definitely a challenge without them. I felt we battled, but we just weren’t making shots (22 of 52 on field goal attempts for the game). That happens sometimes.
“Without them, our offense got way more stagnant than it usually does,” added Bridges. “We had guys who didn’t know all the sets. With our leaders out there, it’s usually easier, because they are directing traffic, telling people, ‘be here, be there.’”
UT coach Chris Beard has always preached defense, whether in his previous stint at Texas Tech (2016-21 where he was 112-55) or now in his first season at Texas. The Longhorn D created plenty of headaches Saturday, particularly in the first half when the Mountaineers made just eight of 25 field goal attempts (32%) and had more turnovers (12) than they normally average in an entire game.
WVU had the score knotted at 14-14 10 minutes in, but then Texas took off. The ‘Horns outscored West Virginia 25-4 over the final 9:48 of the first half to take a 39-20 lead into the locker room at the break.
The Mountaineers battled in the second half, but never threatened to overtake UT. Texas pushed its lead as large as 55-27, but West Virginia fought back and trimmed that deficit to 19 at 65-46 with 8:28 remaining and narrowed it to 15 by the end.
“(The Longhorns) did a really good job in their scout, because they had a good sense of what we were doing,” explained Bridges of the UT defense. “That allowed them to take us out of what we wanted to do.”
If there was a positive for WVU in the loss in Austin it was the fact that several players had to step up their roles without the presence of Sherman, Osabuohien and Johnson.
In particular, it was Bridges, who hadn’t scored in double figures in the previous eight games, but on Saturday, he equaled his season-high with 18 points. The sophomore forward from Fairmont, West Virginia, connected on seven of his 11 shots, including four of seven 3-pointers. His 11 field goal attempts are the most he’s had this season and equal his career-high. Also, he contributed six rebounds and a team-high three steals against UT.
“Obviously, Taz puts the ball in the hoop at a high level, and without him, that’s a huge drop off in our scoring,” acknowledged Bridges. “Today I tried to take the initiative and step up and make plays for my team. I tried to be aggressive to the best of my abilities.
“I feel like this (performance) will give me more confidence moving forward, especially in conference play,” he continued. “So when Taz and Gabe and Kobe come back, I feel like we’ll really get things rolling.”
In addition, senior transfer forward Dimon Carrigan had nine rebounds to eclipse his previous WVU best (six vs. Bellarmine), while also blocking three shots and scoring five points. Another transfer, Malik Curry, had his second-highest scoring game as a Mountaineer with 14 points.
Sean McNeal added 12 points for West Virginia Saturday, but the reigning Big 12 Player of the Week, after scoring 23 against Youngstown State, was obviously the focus of Texas’ defense. The Longhorns weren’t going to let McNeil beat them, and they limited the junior sharpshooter to just two 3-point attempts, though he made both of them.
As a team, WVU blocked nine shots Saturday, which is its second most in the last four years, topped only by an 11-block performance in its 74-59 win over Pitt earlier this season.
The Longhorns, who improved to 10-2 overall and 1-0 in the Big 12 with the win, feature eight transfers on their roster this year. One of those, Marcus Carr, who spent one year at Pitt and three others at Minnesota before arriving in Austin this summer, led Texas in scoring with 20 points. Two Longhorn holdovers, Courtney Ramey and Andrew Jones, added 15 and 14 respectively.
Originally West Virginia (11-2 overall and 0-1 in the Big 12) was slated to bus up the road from Austin to Fort Worth for a Monday night contest at TCU, but the Horned Frogs’ own COVID issues caused that game to be postponed. Thus the Mountaineers will now return home where their next competition is slated for Saturday at 2 p.m. (ESPN+) at the WVU Coliseum against Kansas State (8-3). The availability of Sherman, Osabuohien and Johnson for that game is unclear at the moment, said West Virginia coach Bob Huggins after the loss to Texas.