MORGANTOWN, W. Va. — There is no magic wand Bob Huggins could wave that will fix a West Virginia basketball team that dropped its fourth straight Big 12 game Saturday, 85-77, to Oklahoma State.
If there was, it would have been waved long ago.
And no, the fact that Huggins benched senior Esa Ahmad and junior Wesley Harris for the game wasn’t the white flag of surrender being waved, either.
“All of those guys are like my kids, just like all of the guys that I’ve had in the past,” Huggins said. “I expect more from those guys sometimes. We have to all be on the same page. We all have to be working for the same goal.”
That goal became a blurry dot far off in the distance with Saturday’s loss, which made it the worst start to a conference season since WVU went 0-6 in Big East play during the 2001-02 season under Gale Catlett.
And if Huggins could somehow become a great wizard and say the magic words, he would have to fix the Mountaineers’ defense before anything else.
“That would fix a lot,” Huggins said. “I mean, we fooled around with a 2-3 zone. We’ve fooled around with a 1-3-1. You can’t go 2-3 against [Oklahoma State], because they shoot it too well and they shoot it too deep.”
Oklahoma State (8-8, 2-2 Big 12) was indeed good from the outside, shooting 8-of-17 from 3-point range. The Cowboys were pretty good on the inside, too, scoring 28 points in the paint, much of it off drives to the basket against WVU defenders who were almost left standing off to the side unable to make a difference.
“They straight-line drove us most of the day,” West Virginia point guard Jermaine Haley said. “That’s been the problem for us all season.”
It was enough of a problem that little-known freshman Isaac Likekele was made to look more like an All-American after going for 23 points and nine rebounds in his first trip to the Coliseum.
“Likekele, he just outmanned us,” Huggins said. “He just totally outmanned us, physically outmanned us.”
It was enough of a problem that every time the Mountaineers (8-8, 0-4) seemed to make a run in the second half, the Cowboys answered right back with a run of their own.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys who probably started to doubt whether they could have success at this level,” Oklahoma State coach Mike Boynton said. “I’m proud of the way they’ve responded. They’ve handled it all with grace and understanding that we’ve just got to get better.”
Offensively, the Mountaineers got a career game from Bolden with 31 points. They got a second straight double-double from forward Derek Culver (15 points and 15 rebounds).
West Virginia shot 51 percent (18-of-35) from the field in the second half and turned 18 offensive rebounds into 24 second-chance points.
Normally, those are numbers that point to victory, but these are not normal times for the Mountaineers.
“They just kept coming up with their own shots,” Bolden said. “We couldn’t get over the hump.”
Oklahoma State came into the game ninth in the Big 12 in scoring, averaging less than 70 points per game, but their 85 points were the second-most on the season.
With Ahmad and Harris on the bench — Huggins said he expected them back for Tuesday’s game at TCU — the Mountaineers struggled early and needed more than five minutes to score its first basket of the day.
After recovering, a marginal three-point lead lasted less than three minutes and the Cowboys led the rest of the way.
Huggins did go with a youth movement, often playing Culver along with fellow freshmen Jordan McCabe, Trey Doomes and Emmitt Matthews Jr. together.
The younger Mountaineers showed an ability to move the ball around and not turn it over — West Virginia had just six turnovers for the game — but they made just eight baskets and were 1 of 14 from 3-point range in the first half.
“We stub our toe constantly,” Huggins said. “We’ll go through those spells where we don’t score or where we throw the ball away and just do careless things with the ball. Other people go on runs and then we’re fighting uphill.”
Likekele’s big game was followed up by Cameron McGriff’s double-double (16 points, 10 rebounds) and Curtis Jones came off the bench to add 15 points.
Lamont West added 13 points for the Mountaineers and Jermaine Haley added 10 points and seven rebounds in his third consecutive start at point guard.