KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — When more than 22,000 fans gave hyper-orange, full-throated, rocky-toppin’ life to Thompson-Boling Arena on Saturday, they became the largest crowd to eye-witness a West Virginia basketball game in seven years.
At one juncture, it seemed like seven years since West Virginia had scored.
In actuality, that drought lasted 9 minutes, 31 seconds between points, a gap during which the No. 1 Volunteers snatched any notion of an upset, wrapped it in cement shoes and dunked it in the nearby Tennessee River.
However, before that elongated stretch of offensive futility — and admittedly, we’re trying to accentuate the positive here — West Virginia achieved the tiniest of moral victories: Becoming the first team all season to lead Tennessee by double-digits.
While it’s doubtful Bob Huggins will engrave “We led the Vols 19-7” onto a plaque, that was essentially the best moment to commemorate from an otherwise expected 83-66 loss.
Such is the outcome when the SEC’s best team hosts the Big 12’s worst. Last September, of course, the SEC/Big 12 Challenge-makers didn’t envision this type of mismatch. Just as Huggins didn’t envision coaching a team that throws passes into peril and defends with all the steely ruggedness of cotton candy.
“We generally speak about taking pride in being able to guard, but this group has pretty much made me a liar,” he said.
For those counting at home, the Mountaineers have yielded 83 or more points seven times this season. They averaged doing that 2.7 times during Huggins’ first 11 seasons.
Tennessee reached 83 by rolling up 52 in the second half, making up for a clumsy start.
The Vols sank only 3-of-15 from the floor early and looked shakey when Jordan Bone squandered a three-on-one fast break by throwing a behind-the-back pass off his own hip. Up jumped Rick Barnes and out came Bone, shades of the infamous hook Huggins once yanked on a young Jevon Carter.
But Barnes had a contingency plan, Lamonte Turner, who poured in a season-best 23 points, dished out five assists and committed only one turnover. Somewhat astonishingly, UT’s junior guard celebrated his huge day by lamenting, “we have a lot of growing up to do.”
They’ve won 14 straight games, climbed to the peak of the AP poll, and there’s growing up to do? Barnes must love hearing such grounded self-awareness.
Outside the Mountaineers’ locker room, Esa Ahmad wasn’t ready to endorse the Vols for the Final Four.
“They’re No. 1 for a reason, but I feel like we play teams like this in the Big 12 everyday,” he said. “They were just getting everything they wanted. We weren’t taking anything away.”
Of his own team, which now owns a 9-11 record, Ahmad said the 19-7 lead vanished because “we kind of drifted away from what we were doing.” He soon added, “We had 20-something turnovers — that’s unacceptable.”
Other scenes from the knock-down in Knoxville:
— There was give-and-take, as in Wes Harris giving a Flagrant 1 slap and Wes Harris taking a Flagrant 1 elbow.
— Jermaine Haley, last week’s answer to WVU’s point guard dilemma, became this week’s head-scratcher. Try five turnovers in 15 minutes.
— An errant alley-pop to Beetle Bolden saw Division I’s unluckiest guard land awkwardly on his already-tender ankle. He was done after 11 minutes of action.
— Lamont West contributed three fouls and one basket, dipping to a 2-of-15 shooting line over his past four games.
— Derek Culver, in a losing effort, looked like the best athlete on the floor once again (15 points on 7-of-11 shooting).
All in all, Tennessee fans who packed the arena got mostly what they came to see, a lopsided win that preserved the No. 1 buzz. In the clamor it was easy to forget that four years ago they greeted the hiring of Barnes with a collective “meh.” And when his first two seasons saw the Vols go 31-35, no one was talking about Barnes hanging SEC banners.
But in college basketball, the scenery can change awful quickly. A dash of toughness, a dose of skill, a sniff of confidence, and a program can erupt again. That should be consolation for the few Mountaineers fans speckled throughout this place Saturday.