NORMAN, Okla. — In a moment of self-consoling, Bob Huggins muttered “help is on the way,” wishfully speculating about the potential that next season’s roster holds.
This year’s team, however, has reached its ceiling.
In the aftermath of a 72-62 loss at No. 23 Oklahoma, Huggins knew this was the case. Maybe he had known it ever since Terry Henderson’s fever popped up two weeks ago, but for sure the realization hit home Wednesday night when the Sooners skirted away during a seven-minute stretch of the second half.
From a 43-40 lead that seemed too good to be true, West Virginia lost all form and function. As Oklahoma put together a 25-9 run based on 8-of-11 shooting, Huggins hard no answer.
His best player, Juwan Staten, finally showed the wear from a season’s worth of daring drives and mega-minutes. His best shooter, Eron Harris, had more travels than baskets. His No. 3 scoring option, Henderson, was unavailable for a fourth consecutive game.
“The hardest thing is how to stop the bleeding,” Huggins said. “When they start to make a run, who do you throw the ball to? How do you create a mismatch?”
WVU tried to isolate Nate Adrian, figuring the 6-9 shooter might have a matchup edge. Tried tossing it inside to Devin Williams, figuring OU’s lack of height left it vulnerable. Tried freeing up Harris because, after all, he had burn the Sooners before. But the offense and the confidence were lacking once Oklahoma regained the lead, leaving WVU to rely too much on its pooped point guard.
“We can’t just say, ‘Wannie, drive it to the basket’ every time,” Huggins said.
For long portions Wednesday, Staten was darn near an every-time option. At the half he had made 8-of-15 shots, while his teammates were a combined 5-of-20. Staten closed the night with 24 points on 11-of-23 makes, seemingly all of them high-stress attempts against a village of defenders.
After bursting downcourt for a basket at the 8:28 mark, Staten was spent. He kept pace with his man on the defensive end only to watch Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield shake free for an uncontested 3. (That was one of four 3s Hield made to trigger OU’s surge.) Back on the offensive half, Staten didn’t have it in him to orchestrate the next possession, so twice he motioned for a teammate to come take the ball.
Which Harris did.
And then promptly traveled.
While Staten was out of energy, Harris was simply out of sorts. In trying to push WVU toward an upset, the 18-points-per-game scorer waded into traffic and created more mishaps than opportunities.
“You just tell him to calm down and play basketball,” Staten said. “When you play with a lot on your mind, it weighs on you and it takes away from the things you do good. That’s something we have to keep talking to him about.”
After making 27-of-31 free throws in his previous four games, Harris left Lloyd Noble without going to the line even once. Huggins suggested his sophomore lacked the strength to adjust once officials allowed the defense to turn physical.
“Eron got to the free-throw line so much more before because freedom-of-movement (the officials) really did enforce,” Huggins said. “They didn’t enforce freedom-of-movement today.
“(Oklahoma) grabbed us, chucked us, did whatever—and if you can get away with it, do it.”
It would’ve made Huggins feel better had his defenders actually closed within grabbing distance of Hield on his flurry of 3-pointers. Or for that matter Cameron Clark, whose 19 points were his highest output in nearly two months.
The coach leveled his customary postgame refrain about players getting lost on defense, and sometimes not getting back at all. But after a loss that assuredly pushes an NCAA at-large bid out of sight, Huggins admitted, “We just don’t have enough guys, to be honest with you.”
Even should WVU chop down Kansas in Saturday’s sold-out home finale, it would mostly serve to cement an NIT berth. Anything grander would require a perfect run through the Big 12 tourney, against a glut of teams equally as dangerous, if not more so, than Oklahoma.
“I think we’ll have people that will be able to stop the bleeding a year from now,” said Huggins, pining for the debuts of ineligible forwards Elijah Macon and Jonathan Holton.
“But that doesn’t do us any good now.”