SYRACUSE, N.Y. - It's hard to look at the single play that many West Virginia fans - not to mention coaches and players - will point to in a loss to No. 3 Syracuse Saturday afternoon and say that it was the reason for the loss.
After all, had the Mountaineers gotten the goaltending call they thought they should have - and that replays appeared to verify as such - it would only have tied the score. The Orange still would have had eight seconds and/or an overtime in which to attempt to continue its mastery of WVU.
Still, it was huge for more than just the two points it cost West Virginia in a 63-61 defeat. Bob Huggins pointed to how difficult it was - when the Mountaineers managed to get a second chance - to put it behind them.
Thus the rather labored effort to win the game on Kevin Jones' last-ditch 3-point attempt, which was supposed to be a penetration move by Jabarie Hinds with a kickout to Jones.
"We got enough [penetration] to get K.J. the ball, but obviously not enough to get him a good shot,'' Huggins said. "It's hard to get them back refocused after that happened.''
"That'' was the goaltending call, or lack thereof.
Trailing 63-61 with 26.2 seconds to play, West Virginia ran its offense without much success and had to settle for a long 3-point attempt by Truck Bryant with about 10 seconds to play. It hit nothing but Deniz Kilicli's hands under the basket.
But Kilicli was in perfect position and put the ball back up for what looked like the tying layup. But Syracuse's Baye Keita slapped the ball away.
It appeared that Keita should have been called for goaltending, and replays seemed to bear that out. Even Keita seemed to think it was.
"I'm just supposed to try to block those shots,'' he said. "Luckily I got it and the ref missed it. I don't know if that's a goaltending or a block.''
When Huggins was asked about the play afterward, he turned the question back at his inquisitor.
"You saw it. What did you think?'' Huggins asked. "I just saw it. I just went in [to the locker room] and watched it. I mean, it's ... there's not any doubt.
"Did I think it was [goaltending]? No. I know it was. I just saw the replay.''
Huggins' players were a bit more diplomatic.
"I don't know what to say about it. It was a good shot,'' Jones said. "That's all I can say.''
"At the end of the day they didn't call goaltending, so it's out of our hands,'' Bryant said.
But just as significant perhaps to Huggins was the effect that the play had on his players, who on the floor were looking around wondering when the call was going to be made. It never was.
To try to get those same players to forget the play and focus on winning the game with a play with 6.2 seconds to go was difficult, at best.
"It's hard, you know?'' Huggins said. "You've got 30 seconds [during a timeout] and you're trying to get them refocused and they're all thinking about other things. So yeah, it was hard.''nn
West Virginia pretty much executed its game plan on both ends of the floor. The idea on offense was to control the tempo, protect the ball and pound it inside. On defense it was to use that offensive patience and ball security and not allow Syracuse to run and get easy baskets.
Two things threw a wrench in that, though. Syracuse did manage to get out in transition more than West Virginia would have liked, the result of 17 WVU turnovers.
And when the ball went inside, the Mountaineers couldn't get it in the basket. Kilicli was 2-for-10, none of the shots from more than a few feet. And when he was fouled he made just one of his five free-throw attempts.
"We came in with the idea that we wanted to throw it close and for the most part we did,'' Huggins said. "But Deniz didn't finish the way he normally finishes. He's usually a better finisher than that around the goal.''
Of the 17 turnovers, most were early - 10 in the first half and five in the opening minutes of the second. The only turnovers down the stretch were a couple of shot-clock violations, but Huggins said he could live with those, presumably because WVU was still controlling the tempo and the opponent can't get out in transition when a whistle stops play for a shot-clock violation.
"Those turnovers don't hurt you,'' Huggins said.
But the early turnovers and the problems around the basket - Jones also missed three inside shots - did prevent West Virginia from extending a lead that was as many as six points in the first half.
"We had our chances. We missed a lot of close shots,'' Jones said. "We could have extended our little a little bit if we'd made some shots.''nn
BRIEFLY: Freshman Gary Browne had another outstanding game with 11 points, five rebounds, three assists and just one turnover. He also kept possessions alive with scrappy rebounds, and all three of his field goals were at or near the end of shot clocks. ... Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim won his 878th game. That's one away from tying Dean Smith for third on the all-time Division I list. ... West Virginia has no time to think about the loss. The Mountaineers host Pitt at the Coliseum in a Big Monday game on ESPN. After losing seven straight to start Big East play, the Panthers have won two straight after beating Georgetown Saturday.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org