AMES, Iowa — The trajectory of the Mountaineers’ lost night in the American Heartland—falling behind early, playing catch-up in the middle and ultimately stumbling to a not-that-close finish—exemplified their entire season.
From an uninspiring performance in the nonleague schedule, West Virginia swiftly resurrected its NCAA tournament hopes in mid-February. But after Wednesday night’s latest disappointment, a third straight double-digit loss, the Mountaineers are not close.
Iowa State all but squashed WVU’s at-large chances, pulling away for an 83-66 win that was equal parts retaliatory and remarkable. Sure, we anticipated the Cyclones bouncing back from a 25-point beatdown in Morgantown, but who foresaw that happening with Big 12 leading scorer Melvin Ejim sitting out the final 17 minutes?
Ejim, after picking up his third foul while backpedaling against Remi Dibo just 2:47 into the second half, barked at the call and received a technical that saddled him with a fourth foul. Off to the bench he went for good, penance for a mistake his coach Fred Hoiberg described as “out of character.”
Down 46-35, this was, essentially, West Virginia’s window to rally. Yes, Terry Henderson was ill and absent from the lineup, but Ejim unwittingly had equalized the matchup with his gaffe. Opportunity abounded. This could have been WVU’s bail-out.
Instead, the game became a blowout.
Never were WVU’s defensive deficiencies more apparent than when Iowa State made 63 percent of its shots (14-of-22) after Ejim exited. Naz Long, the latest unheralded role player to exploit West Virginia, made three of his five 3-pointers during that stretch and Georges Niang finished off his 24-point night.
“If we could guard teams, we could tough some of these games out,” said point guard Juwan Staten. “You can talk about the arenas we’re playing in, us not making shots, getting out-rebounded, being young … but the main thing is we’re not playing defense.”
Long went 5-of-7 from deep and finished with 15 points—only his second double-digit performance in 35 career Big 12 games.
“You give D-I players wide-open shots and they’re going to start knocking them down,” said Staten, who twice peeled out of the lane and charged at Long too late. “The guys we want to shoot the ball are shooting it, but the problem is when they’re shooting it, they’re wide open.”
Much of the Cyclones’ offense was facilitated by freshman point guard Monte Morris—he of the 12 assists and zero turnovers. And there were pivotal plays aplenty from Niang, whose floor-bound moves were astonishingly difficult to defend one-on-one and whose passing skills carved up double-teams.
“We did a horrible job on Niang,” said Bob Huggins. “Niang’s so good because he really can pass the ball. You can’t run and double him because he’s going to find open people. We ran over to help on him a couple times and they made open 3s.”
West Virginia (15-13, 7-8), just two weeks removed from being the topic of Joe Lunardi’s bubble talk, has backslid precipitously. From the “last four in” the NCAAs to perhaps the last four into its own league tourney. At this point, WVU might not be able to stave off Baylor and Oklahoma State for the last of the six first-round byes.
Yet such is the neighborhood where flummoxed, inconsistent teams reside—particularly in the unforgiving Big 12. Scarce electricity remains from the midseason jolt the Mountaineers generated, and they wear the look of a team that belongs closer to the bottom of the standings than the top.