MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The reasons kept mounting as to why West Virginia would leap over the hump and—finally—beat a worthy opponent.
Terry Henderson swished 3s and swatted shots. Devin Williams kept hopping on tired legs toward a double-double. Juwan Staten, who never gets tired, fist-pumped amid a series of pull-up jumpers and gravity-suspending drives.
And on the Oklahoma State bench, Marcus Smart reclined with his third foul.
West Virginians might not be able to drink the water these days, but we were sure drinking the Kool-aid on an upset Saturday afternoon.
Yet, Smart’s absence didn’t spur West Virginia into takeover mode. In fact, from the 12:19 mark when Smart exited, until the 9:06 mark when the All-American returned, No. 11 Oklahoma State went on a 9-2 run to take the lead. Given the spate of late-game twists that ultimately led to the Cowboys’ 73-72 win, we might have overlooked those three Smartless minutes when OSU seemed vulnerable.
But not WVU boss Bob Huggins, who will suffer nightsweats over every wasted possession that could have reversed Saturday’s nip/tuck thriller.
“We’re close,” the coach said, before lamenting how his young players “don’t understand that when you stop playing hard that people take advantage of you.”
Especially loaded teams like OSU.
With Smart on the bench, West Virginia freshman forward Brandon Watkins made a soft pass on the perimeter, leading to a steal and dunk by Markel Brown. OSU led 56-52 and out came Watkins.
More maddening: The Cowboys were up 60-57 after a free throw when Williams and Gary Browne got out-of-step taking the ball out-of-bounds and committed the very definition of an unforced turnover.
Another moment of timidity: With the game squared at 67-all, Kamari Murphy hit his first free throw and missed the second, only to have Smart worm in for the offensive rebound. The extended possession resulted with a Smart layup.
“We didn’t even think about blocking out someone who is probably a first-team All-American,” Huggins said. “We just stood there. I don’t know how you do that, but we did.”
Yet WVU retained its wits and regained the momentum, getting a ginormous 3 from Henderson at the 1:17 mark to lead 72-70 and then reclaiming possession with 64 seconds to go.
The 12,000-plus at the WVU Coliseum sensed the wait might be over for their Mountaineers to finally end their year-and-a-half malaise against top-tier teams.
And then a difficult miss by Staten left OSU a crack, and Smart exploited it. He drove the lane, found himself cut off and fired a pass back out to Brown, who had missed all three of his previous 3-pointers.
This time was different. A ball-fake sent WVU defender Gary Browne leaping by before OSU’s Brown calmly sized up a 22-foot dagger over the lunging 6-foot-9 Nate Adrian.
“I know we jumped and left our feet again, which we’ve said 8,000 times ‘Stay down and make them score the ball through you.'” Huggins said.
The old coach realizes those situational nitpicks equal the difference in tight games like Saturday’s. Games like WVU hasn’t been winning the past two seasons. While last year’s team dealt with deeper deficits of chemistry and desire, this year’s much more likable bunch continues to let mini-lapses stunt its accent.
“Hope everybody takes it to heart,” said Henderson, looking better than he ever has in a Mountaineer uni with 21 points, four assists and—this is not a typo—three blocks. “We really blew this game.”
Huggins would concur. And it eats him up.
“The two greatest emotions in the world are winning and losing,” he said, “and I don’t like this emotion.”