WACO, Texas — Was this really Waco? Because it sure felt like West Lafayette all over again.
The Mountaineers, hearkening back to the punchless effort they levied against Purdue, showed little fire during a forgettable second half here Wednesday night. The resulting 80-60 loss to Baylor once more dropped West Virginia below .500 in Big 12 play and shot BB holes in all the recent signs of progress.
To think, this was a one-point game with 17 seconds left in the first half, at which juncture WVU was still impersonating a team on the improve. Then Baylor used a 30-second timeout to a stage its last-shot possession, which wound up in the hands of reserve guard Gary Franklin all alone on the left wing, planted just a few feet in front of Bob Huggins.
Too bad for WVU that Huggins couldn’t throw a hand in Franklin’s face, considering no other Mountaineer was close enough to do so. Franklin swished a 3-pointer at the horn and Baylor bounced off the court with a 31-27 halftime cushion.
Sure, Franklin wasn’t a starter, but the WVU scouting report most assuredly ID’d him as an outside shooter, considering how 61 of his previous 79 shots this season came from outside the arc.
That wasn’t the last time the Mountaineers left a Baylor gunner unchecked. Brady Heslip made four of his six 3s in the second half, benefiting from drive-and-kick assists by point guard Pierre Jackson
“When you have Pierre who’s so fast … it forces other people to help,” said Heslip, who scored 20 points. “Sometimes my guy helped, and when he did it led to open 3s.”
But Heslip’s explanation didn’t satisfy West Virginia’s Eron Harris, a guard who has Heslip’s range along with a skill Heslip does not — the ability to penetrate and create shots off the dribble.
“The shooter got shots off when all he does is shoot 3s,” fumed Harris.
Everyone wearing Mountaineer blue seemed especially mystified as to why no defender guarded Heslip on a secondary fast break midway through the second half. The junior was in tailing position as Jackson sped down the middle of the court, and when the point guard reached the top of the key, well, let’s allow Jackson to recount:
“Brady was like ‘Yo, pitch it back, pitch it back,’ and I was like, ‘I got you.’ I gave it to him and he did the rest.”
That was one of nine assists for Jackson, the Big 12’s top scorer, whose 15 points were only third-highest on his own team Wednesday. The Bears doled out 23 assists overall and 14 in the second half when they pulverized WVU with 59-percent shooting.
What Huggins saw from the sideline: “We had live ball turnovers that they scored on, then we kind of started hanging our heads and they beat us in transition.”
What Mountaineers guard Jabarie Hinds saw from the court: “We didn’t play the whole second half. They had some runs, but we didn’t come back with a run and compete. They just kept pounding on us.”
The matchup paired the two stingiest defensive teams in Big 12 conference action, as Baylor came in allowing 60.8 points per league game and WVU surrendering 61.4. The Mountaineers, however, clearly didn’t bring their defensive intensity. (Perhaps they gave up guarding for Lent?)
“Defense,” said Hinds when asked about the most disappointing aspect of the loss. “We gave up too many layups and dunks.”
Seven of those layups and dunks came courtesy of Rico Gathers, known as the other freshman at Baylor this season thanks to Isaiah Austin hoarding most of the accolades.
Yet Gathers was a four-star recruit last season, and the nation’s No. 37-rated prospect by Rivals. He declined Duke, Florida and N.C. State to play for the Bears — and if hoops doesn’t pan out, the 6-8 musclemound should consider playing for the Chicago Bears. He’s got the build, and on Wednesday night when he flexed, West Virginia backed down.
That’s when Gathers and Baylor finished WVU with a series of haymakers — or maybe they were Boilermakers. No difference, really, because the knockout blow felt the same.