KNOXVILLE, Tenn.— What started as a glimmer of hope quickly turned into just another setback for West Virginia.
Over the course of the first nine minutes of Saturday’s 83-66 loss against No. 1 Tennessee, the Mountaineers led 19-7 and offered a glimpse of optimism that rivaled its upset against Kansas one week earlier.
It was the next 9 1/2 minutes that spelled their eventual doom in the annual SEC/Big 12 Challenge.
To be exact, it was 9:31 in which the Mountaineers missed 12 consecutive shots and clanked two free throws that kept them at 19 longer than Zac Efron.
“We came out strong and then just fell apart,” West Virginia guard Chase Harler said. “We went through a little scoring drought.”
There was really nothing little about it. Three of the misses were lay-ups, four were 3-point attempts and all of it was similar to a number of other offensive droughts the Mountaineers (9-11, 1-6 Big 12) have suffered throughout the season.
“I thought defensively we played as well as we have all year in the first half,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “We just settled on the offensive end. We didn’t do anything but shoot the ball. We had no concept of what we were trying to do.”
West Virginia coach Bob Huggins, who fell to 1-5 as the Mountaineers’ coach in the Challenge, saw it a little differently.
“We ran an out-of-bounds play and had a guy wide open and we hit him in the foot,” he said. “That hurts. We ran a curl and I mean we had a guy wide open that I probably could have passed it from where I was standing and we don’t throw him the ball. I think a lot of it was us. [Tennessee] is real good. I’ve always had great respect for Rick, but when you’re wide open, you probably ought to throw him the ball where he can catch it. We created a lot of our own problems.”
And they are problems that have essentially been there since Day 1 with this team. Since taking the early 12-point lead, the Volunteers (18-1, 6-0 SEC) outscored West Virginia 24-2 over the final 11 minutes of the first half to take a 31-21 lead.
It only got worse in the second half, as Tennessee continued to build its lead up to as many as 21 — the second straight game WVU has faced at least a 20-point deficit.
When it was all said and done, the Volunteers’ 52 second-half points were the most scored against the Mountaineers this season. It was the third time WVU allowed 50 or more in a half.
“They started to get whatever they wanted,” said West Virginia forward Esa Ahmad, who finished with 16 points and seven rebounds. “We didn’t take anything away. They’re No. 1 for a reason.”
Held to 34.5 percent shooting in the first half, Tennessee shot 59.4 percent (19 of 32) in the second half, which took away any thoughts of a second-half run by the Mountaineers.
That too has been a trend. In the 11 games since center Sagaba Konate has been out with his knee injury, opponents are shooting 46 percent against West Virginia and scoring 76 points per game.
“During that scoring drought, we didn’t play defense,” Harler said. “During my first two years here, when we had [Jevon Carter] and [Daxter Miles Jr.] and Tarik [Phillip], we had droughts, but we kept other teams from scoring.
“It’s tough enough when you’re not scoring, but we can’t just let teams keep scoring like they have.”
West Virginia’s 24 turnovers didn’t help matters and the Volunteers scored 20 points off of them. It was the fifth time this season the Mountaineers finished with 20 or more in a game.
“We struggled to pass the ball,” said Harler, who added nine points. “We were trying to run certain things. We were trying to get into one of our offenses, which is a read offense. We wanted to see how the defense would play it and we weren’t making the right reads. We had 24 turnovers, which is just unacceptable.”
Ahmad was a plus in the second half, as was freshman forward Derek Culver, who finished with 15 points and six rebounds. It was his basket in the paint that ended the Mountaineers’ scoring drought with 1:34 remaining in the half.
By that time, Tennessee had turned the 12-point deficit into a 24-21 lead. Tennessee scored the next 10 points and WVU never got as close as nine points in the second half.
Making his first start since 2017 SEC Tournament, Lamonte Turner led Tennessee with 23 points on 8-of-10 shooting, and reigning SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams added 19 points and four assists. Admiral Schofield had a double-double with 14 points and 10 rebounds.
“We generally take pride in being able to guard,” Huggins said. “This group has pretty much made me a liar.”