In a game marked by the familiar physicality of Big East basketball, everything came down to the flimsiest of calls in West Virginia’s 70-68 loss to St. John’s at Madison Square Garden.
West Virginia’s Derek Culver was called for a foul with 5 seconds left, allowing the Red Storm’s Rasheed Dunn to head to the line for a pair of free throws that provided the winning margin.
St. John’s finished the game 22 of 27 (81 percent) from the free-throw line. The Red Storm came in shooting just 65 percent from the charity stripe.
Dunn was already slipping on MSG’s slick floor — the world’s most famous arena is also shared by the NHL’s New York Rangers — when Culver hit Dunn’s face with the back of his hand.
While the contact was undeniable, whether or not it was a foul was certainly open to interpretation. West Virginia coach Bob Huggins felt it was a case of the aggressor earning the spoils.
“They took the ball to the basket and got a call,” Huggins said. “They were given a call. Let’s take the ball to the basket and make them make a call for us.”
That was the directive Huggins gave freshman guard Miles McBride in the huddle following Dunn’s free throws, but McBride pulled up for a contested jumper that was off the mark as the buzzer sounded. McBride finished 1-for-10 from the field.
“The first and last thing I said in the huddle was ‘We have to get to the rim,'” Huggins said.
The Mountaineers never got close to the rim. A wide-open Emmitt Matthews was crashing in for a potential putback on the play, but McBride released his long jump shot too late for a second-chance opportunity.
“He came down and took a shot he didn’t need to take,” Huggins said. “Maybe I shouldn’t have put a freshman there. But he was, I thought, our best option to be able to execute that. We wanted to attack the rim. The last time we won here, it was the same thing, only when I told Joe Mazzulla to attack the rim, he attacked the rim.”
The Mountaineers (7-1) lost for the first time despite holding St. John’s (8-2) without a field goal for the final 4:28.
“Our execution sucked,” Huggins said. “Defensively, we were really bad. Offensively, we were worse.”
The issue was that West Virginia found itself in a hole for the majority of the second half before finally closing the gap with a 9-0 run to tie the game at 68, capping the rally off with Sean McNeil’s three-pointer with 1:13 to play. McNeil came off the bench to give the Mountaineers a team-high 13 points.
McNeil’s defensive rebound on the following St. John’s possession gave West Virginia a chance to take the lead in the final minute.
But guard Taz Sherman, who had drained a three in the rally, was thrown off when St. John’s forward LJ Figueroa leaped at him all the way from the paint as he pulled up for a potential go-ahead three. Sherman instead drove and pulled up for a 12-foot jumper that was off the mark. Culver grabbed the offensive board, but was stripped by Dunn after leaving the ball unprotected down by his waist.
After the steal, St. John’s coach Mike Anderson used his final timeout with 16.5 seconds left to set up his team’s final possession.
Turnovers were the primary problem for the Mountaineers throughout the entire game. The Red Storm’s unrelenting press forced West Virginia into a season-high 22 turnovers, and St. John’s turned those mistakes into 22 points.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys and we’re coming off handling some success, and we didn’t handle it very well,” Huggins said. “Mike’s a really good coach. He’s going to have his guys ready to play and prepared. We just didn’t do a very good job.”
The game, part of the inaugural Big 12-Big East Battle, was an authentic throwback to West Virginia’s many years in the Big East. The teams combined for 42 fouls, and it is possible that about half that many left on the floor uncalled.
By the numbers
Derek Culver had an unusual stat line, finishing with 12 points, 18 rebounds and five turnovers before fouling out… West Virginia shot 35.3 percent from the field in the second half… The Mountaineers won the very active rebounding battle 49-47… Starting point guard Jordan McCabe played only 12 minutes. He had four assists and no points… St. John’s was 2 of 17 from three-point range… Figueora led all scorers with 17 points… West Virginia is now 36-53 all-time at Madison Square Garden, with the most recent win coming against North Carolina State in 2014.
West Virginia hosts Austin Peay of the Ohio Valley Conference at WVU Coliseum on Thursday night.