KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Vacant stares. Explanations that tailed off into mumbling and I-don’t-knows. The dazed-and-confused Mountaineers were at a loss to clarify what happened, and what didn’t, against Texas.
Down a dozen before the first TV timeout. Trailing by 21 at the half. Put down before some of the crowd had even sat down.
The team that swept the leg on Kansas spent five ensuing days ramping up to convince the Big 12 congregation that West Virginia was NCAA-worthy. That contention vanished quicker than a plate of Jack Stack barbecue as WVU struggled to hang up 14 first-half points. It eventually found itself getting smoked by 30 during the second half before those compassionate Texas walk-ons afforded a less egregious 66-49 final.
“I certainly didn’t see it coming,” said Bob Huggins.
“Seemed like we were deer in headlights,” said Juwan Staten.
“It came out of nowhere,” added Gary Browne.
Actually, it came out of Austin, in the form of a Longhorns team that had WVU’s number all season … and realized it. We’ve read stories, skimmed Tweets and watched HD broadcasts of the Longhorns looking rather ordinary—they nearly were swept by Texas Tech!—but put them on a court with West Virginia and they become Team Invincible.
“They beat us three times. There’s something they’re doing that bothers us,” said Mountaineers guard Eron Harris, who was bothered into a 1-of-5 shooting night. He scored a season-low three points, spared from a shutout only by his 3-pointer with 5:41 left in a long-lost game. Sixteen seconds later he fouled out.
“We beat the best team in the conference (Kansas), but for some reason that team right there (Texas) gives us trouble,” he said.
The trouble came quick and fiercely Thursday night. While Jonathan Holmes and Javan Felix were striking for double figures in the first half, no West Virginia starter scored a point in the first 11 minutes.
Staten, unofficially charged with carrying this team throughout the season, showed a reckless edge in trying to jolt the Mountaineers into a competitive state. But even he was painfully ineffective, shooting 1-of-9 in the first half and missing two more attempts after the break.
With Texas committed to cutting off WVU’s point guard, there were no points to be had.
“It’s definitely frustrating when shots are hard to come by and the shots you do get are rimming in and out,” Staten said.
The hole was 21-6 when he made his lone basket, which came after picking the pocket of UT freshman Isaiah Taylor. With the breakaway all to his lonesome, Staten didn’t explode for one of his hammer dunks; instead he barely laid the ball over the rim.
The 35-14 halftime score was a doozy. In West Virginia’s case, a deflating doozy.
“We had a great week of practice,” Browne said after the game. He was seated in front of a locker, barely looking up as he trimmed tape from his ankles. “I thought we understood what this tournament meant for us.”
Thursday’s quarterfinal lineup at the Sprint Center drew 18,000-plus, who primarily will recall two exceptional games and one that became enticing late. Staten and the Mountaineers had been in those bleachers midday, soaking up the shot-making gallery of Iowa State-Kansas State and the hyper-charged climate for Kansas-Oklahoma State. The Mountaineers had beaten three of those teams and come close twice against OSU. The Mountaineers sensed they belonged at this event.
“The gym was packed, great games being played, the fan base was great—everything was set up for us to go out and be successful,” Staten said.
Success now must be measured in the NIT or perhaps one of the even lesser tourneys. Surely, after being unable to mount even a moment’s challenge in such a must-win game, this notion of the selection committee giving WVU even a courtesy glimpse must be buried. Yet Huggins wasn’t sure.
“We were sixth in the best league in the country,” he said. “Are we one of the 60-however-the-hell-many-there-are (best teams) now? Yeah, I think we are. … Sure we are. Right now we are.”
Given the way WVU went quietly into the tournament night, you half-wondered if Huggins was reading from a teleprompter whose script was three hours old.