It took the ninth-ranked Mountaineer men’s basketball team 20 minutes to figure out how to play without Oscar Tshiebwe.
The sophomore forward left West Virginia on Friday. Saturday WVU found itself at the Lloyd Nobel Center in Norman, Oklahoma, facing the 5-2 Sooners. And 20 minutes after tipoff, the visitors found themselves in a 38-20 hole.
The Mountaineers developed a rhythm in the second half, though, which included making nine of 14 three-pointers in the period. That helped them to completely erase OU’s 18-point lead in the half’s first 10 minutes.
Just when WVU’s miracle comeback appeared to be possible, though, Oklahoma regained its balance and pulled out a 75-71 victory.
“We played a lot harder in the second half, we executed better in the second half, and we actually tried to take some things away from them defensively in the second half,” said WVU head coach Bob Huggins, whose club fell to 8-3 overall and 1-2 in the Big 12.
“Our effort the first half was not good enough.”
With the departure of Tshiebwe, who had started each of the previous 41 games for West Virginia over the past season and a half, redshirt freshman Jalen Bridges moved into WVU’s starting lineup.
Though he was the newcomer to the starting unit, Bridges was the only Mountaineer to provide any consistent offensive output in the first half. He scored 11 of WVU’s 20 first half points, hitting four of five field goals and three of four from 3-point range in that stretch. Unfortunately for West Virginia, Bridges’ teammates made only three of their 25 shots in the opening half.
At that same time the Sooners forced WVU into 12 first half turnovers, which OU converted into an 11-0 advantage in points off turnovers. West Virginia veterans Derek Culver and Deuce McBride had six and three of those turnovers respectively, while they combined for just six points.
The home club outscored WVU 28-9 over the final 16 minutes of the first half in forging its 18-point lead at the midway juncture.
The second half was a different story, though the ending ultimately saw West Virginia still on the short end.
WVU outscored OU 29-10 in the first 9:49 after halftime, tying the contest at 52-52, as the Mountaineers heated up from three. They made nine of their first 12 shots from beyond the arch in the second half. The game was still knotted after another Bridges triple at the 5:05 mark.
West Virginia never could get over the top and take the lead, though.
The key sequence came with just under four minutes left, and Oklahoma holding a 62-60 advantage. The Sooners missed a three, but OU senior forward Brady Manek snagged the offensive rebound and pitched it back out. Rinse, lather, repeat. OU missed another three, but again Manek tracked down the rebound and passed it outside. This time the ball landed in the hands of Sooner guard Austin Reaves, who buried the trey this time, giving OU a 65-60 lead.
West Virginia kept fighting, but it was unable get inside three points the remainder of the way until the outcome was ultimately decided.
“It was huge,” Huggins said of Manek’s two offensive rebounds that led to the Reaves three. “We tried to go bigger to prevent that, but it didn’t work. You just can’t continue to give your opposition as many shots as they want, especially when you are one-and-done.”
WVU had been averaging 15.6 offensive rebounds per game prior to Saturday, but had just eight against the Sooners. OU outperformed West Virginia in second-chance points, 13-2, and the home team won the total battle on the boards, 41-36.
The Mountaineers got just two points and six rebounds, to go along with seven turnovers, from junior forward Derek Culver, who had been averaging 14.1 points and 9.9 rebounds.
“The reality of it is, he’s going to get double teamed, and he’s got to deal with it,” Huggins said of Culver. “All the great centers who have ever played the game get double teamed. You learn to deal with it, and he hasn’t learned to deal with it yet.”
While Culver struggled, Bridges took advantage of his first start at WVU by pouring in 19 points. He had been just one of 11 from three-point range in his first nine games of the season but was five of six from beyond the arc in Norman.
“J.B. played well, though we didn’t do a very good job with our spacing,” noted Huggins.
WVU guard Taz Sherman scored 19 points, all of those coming in the second half. McBride finished with 15, and Emmitt Matthews added 11. That trio scored 41 of their 45 total points in the second half, when they also made a combined seven of 11 three-point shots.
None of the Mountaineers were hotter than Oklahoma’s Umoja Gibson, though. The OU junior guard scorched the nets for 29 points by making eight of 11 three-pointers. Only two WVU opponents – Marshall’s Tamar Slay in 2000 and Buffalo’s C.J. Massinburg in 2018 – have ever had more threes against WVU, as each had nine.
“I know this is hard to believe, but I did tell them not to leave him; they still did,” Huggins said of the Mountaineers’ defense on Gibson, who is a transfer from North Texas. “That’s what I’m saying. We were not as mentally prepared for the game as we needed to be.”
Certainly that lack of mental preparedness showed in the first half. West Virginia made a valiant comeback attempt in the second half, but ultimately the Sooners made the plays they needed to stem WVU’s charge.
The Mountaineers will remain on the road for the next couple of days, as they will now make the short trip from Norman to Stillwater where they’ll face Oklahoma State (7-2/3-1) on Monday night at 9 p.m. in a game that will be broadcast by ESPN2.