West Virginia (16-10, 6-7 Big East) saw a late lead slip away again on Saturday from the Coliseum, falling to No. 23 Louisville (20-5, 8-4 Big East) 77-74.
((Below is a video recap of the game))
A myriad of late-game dramatics put the finishing touches on what was a crushing loss as the Mountaineers have now lost five of their last six games.
“I’m tired of the ‘ifs’ – ‘if we would do this right. If we would do that right. If we wouldn’t do this,’” said a frustrated Mountaineer head coach Bob Huggins after the game.
The Mountaineers led by 13 in the first half and by as much as seven with under six minutes to go in the game. However, Louisville’s full-court press in the second half created several turnovers as the Cardinals chipped away at West Virginia’s lead and eventually stole the game. The Cardinals forced 11 turnovers and outscored West Virginia 22-13 in points off of turnovers.
“I think when you’re allowed to play that way, it’s a great strategy,” Huggins said. “…If you’re allowed to press that way, we should all press.”
Part of the game was lost from the free throw line for West Virginia – the Mountaineers went just 17 of 27 from the foul line. Louisville, on the other hand, hit 13 of 15 free throw attempts.
The Mountaineers were also hampered without Deniz Kilicli in the game for key minutes down the stretch – the junior found himself in foul trouble late in the first half, picking up two fouls on the same play. Following a shot Kilicli was called on a foul going for a rebound – he reacted to the call by throwing the ball high into the air, drawing the technical.
“He got his second foul because we had a guy that didn’t block out and then just stood there after he didn’t block out,” Huggins said.
As for the technical, Kilicli took full responsibility after the game.
“It’s pretty much all my fault that we lost the game like this,” Kilicli said. “There’s some other stuff, of course, but a big part of that was me getting two fouls in a row and me not being able to play hurt the team a lot.”
After trailing by seven at the half, Louisville cut the West Virginia lead down to four, 66-62 following back-to-back buckets by Russ Smith with 8:15 to go. A couple of Smith free throws later cut that lead down to 71-68 with under four minutes left.
Louisville’s Kyle Kuric tied the game up at 71-71 with a three – a West Virginia turnover on the ensuing inbounds set up another Louisville bucket to give the Cardinals the 73-71 lead with 2:13 to go.
Down 75-71, Jones scored a layup, plus-one for West Virginia to close the gap to 75-74 with just 50 seconds left. After a missed Louisville shot, West Virginia couldn’t convert on its own end as a Gary Browne pass went into the hands of Kuric for Louisville.
“It’s the end of the game and they’re not going to foul you, get the ball to the basket,” Huggins said. “He’s trying to get it to KJ and KJ wasn’t in the post and he tries to throw it through people. They’re trying. We just have to stop all the ifs and buts.”
West Virginia held an early 10-point lead just after the halfway point in the opening stanza, 30-20 by going on a 12-0 run. That stretch was started off with a Jones bucket to tie the game up at 20-20. Kilicli and Jabarie Hinds followed with back-to-back dunks while Jones added a three. Hinds sparked a couple of fast break chances in that stretch, converting turnovers into points.
The Mountaineers extended that lead to 13 with under four minutes to go, 40-27, following and Aaron Brown three. The Cardinals closed answered with a 10-4 run to close the half, making the score 44-37 at the break. It was West Virginia’s first lead at the half since January 14th against Rutgers.
Kilicli led West Virginia in the first half with 15 points – he finished the game with 17 points overall. In the first half, West Virginia pounded Louisville on the glass 27-15 – the Cardinals won that battle in the second half 17-12.
“When Deniz is out, we get outrebounded,” Huggins said. “We gave them too many chances. No, let me rephrase that – they were given to many chances.”
The loss puts West Virginia in a tight spot with 10 losses on the year, a 6-7 Big East record and five games to go.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel a little bit of pressure, maybe even a lot of pressure, but I still have faith and all we can do is keep on fighting,” Jones said. “We’ve got to find a way to win a game – find a way to win some games. Coach said we’ve got to get to 10 wins in this league in order to have a chance and we’ve got to find a way to get them.”
Three of West Virginia’s final five games will be away from the Coliseum on the road.
“I think it was the way we lost – we played our hearts out and to lose like that was definitely not good,” Jones said. “It happens, but we’ve just got to keep on playing.”
Louisville, meanwhile, improves to 9-4 all-time against West Virginia – a series that has no certain future with the Mountaineers’ move to the Big 12.
“The main thing is we’ve been coming to this place years in a row,” said Louisville head coach Rick Pitino. “More exciting than the victory is we are not coming back. It’s a tough place to play, and we are very excited about the victory.”
Up next for West Virginia is a Thursday road game at Pitt.