NEW YORK — Whatever momentum West Virginia built during its four-game winning streak evaporated Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden.
Florida’s half-court defensive pressure was too disruptive, and its drives to the rim too relentless, and an inept West Virginia offense couldn’t answer during a 66-56 loss.
The Gators (5-3) represented the first power-conference test this season for the Mountaineers (5-3), who also fell to 0-3 in the Jimmy V Classic. That includes a 2008 loss to Stephen Curry and Davidson and a 70-54 loss against next-door neighbor Virginia in 2015.
Florida has now won three straight against West Virginia, dating back to pre-Bob Huggins in 2003.
West Virginia’s last win against Florida: December of 2002, when state native Brett Nelson was a guard for the Gators and the game was played at the Charleston Civic Center.
The atmosphere in the Garden was just a little different than Charleston, and the Mountaineers looked like a team that was playing far from home, too.
“You get on a stage where guys want to be something they’re not,” Huggins said. “That was the whole deal. Florida did a really good job — I’m not going to take anything away from them — but we had guys open. When you’re standing out there dribbling the damn ball between your legs, it’s hard to hit an open guy. That’s what we did.”
Florida’s half-court defense had something to do with that. The Gators held the Mountaineers to below 10 points for nearly the first 10 minutes of the first half and then held WVU without a field goal for the next 3:34.
When it was all said and done, the Mountaineers were at 31 percent (9 of 29) from the field in the first half.
“Florida had a good defensive game, but at the same time, we didn’t help ourselves by turning the ball over,” West Virginia guard Chase Harler said. “They were in that [1-3-1] half-court press. They weren’t even looking to turn us over; just slow us down. We didn’t handle that to the best of our ability.”
The Mountaineers had averaged nearly 96 points per game during a four-game winning streak, but they would have needed about 12 overtimes to reach that in this one.
“That’s something we’ve worked hard on all year,” Florida coach Mike White said. “No question the 1-3-1 was a big factor for us.”
West Virginia had 10 turnovers in the first half — one coming when Brandon Knapper threw the ball into a crowd and Esa Ahmad and Emmitt Matthews Jr. collided while attempting to retrieve it. WVU started 6-of-13 on first-half free-throw attempts.
It felt like an old Big East-style of game the Mountaineers used to play before joining the Big 12. Neither team shot great — the Gators were just 9-of-26 (34 percent) in the first half — both teams were crashing the boards for rebounds and neither could deliver a knockout blow.
That was until Florida survived its own scoreless drought of 4:53 to open the second half to pull away.
After a dunk in transition from Ahmad gave West Virginia a 31-30 lead — its only lead of the game — Florida answered with a 18-4 run highlighted by a 3-pointer from Andrew Nembhard with 10:48 left.
Huggins called timeout but things only got worse. West Virginia went scoreless for 5:30 as Florida took a 48-33 lead before Jordan McCabe canned two free throws with 8:01 remaining.
“Overall, this team has defended at a pretty high level and made enough shots,” White said.
Harler heated up late with three 3-pointers that closed the Gators lead to 55-46 with 3:10 remaining, but Florida closed it out scoring its final 11 points from the free-throw line.
Harler led the Mountaineers with 11 points, all of them coming over the final five minutes.
Ahmad added seven points and nine rebounds and Wes Harris added nine points and five rebounds.
West Virginia shot a season-low 29.7 percent (19 of 64) and committed 21 turnovers. Until Harler began drilling 3-pointers late, Florida had held the Mountaineers to just 10 points and three field goals in the second half.
“I just felt like we were loose with the ball,” Ahmad said. “We had 21 turnovers, which is unacceptable. We just have to do better. Florida was the better team tonight.”
KeVaughn Allen led the Gators with 19 points on 5-of-13 shooting.
The freshman point guard Nembhard had six assists to mitigate 1-of-7 shooting.
Florida was abysmal fro the foul line much ion the game but made 10 of its last 11 to finish 28-of-46.
West Virginia sank only 11-of-20 free throws and held a slim 48-45 edge in rebounding against the Gators’ guard-dominated lineup.
“We got guys who want to go out and prove what they can’t do,” Huggins said. “They want to prove that they can do this or do that, when in reality I see them every day in practice, I know what they can’t do. When you continue to turn it over, turn it over, turn it over and you continue to miss shots, well, you probably shouldn’t be shooting it then.
“We continually have guys who continue to do things they can’t do. We’ve got some guys who have got to grow up. If they don’t, then we don’t need them around.”