MORGANTOWN -- At one point during the Louisville-WVU game, an advertisement flashed on the scoreboard for smokers. The phone number was 800-QUIT-NOW.During this Mountaineer losing stretch, which has reached five of six games, coach Bob Huggins' team has refused to quit. But it has certainly been falling apart.West Virginia's 77-74 loss to the Cardinals Saturday at the Coliseum, on the heels of its 55-51 home loss to Notre Dame, clearly illustrates that.Against the Fighting Irish, WVU was outscored 13-6 at the end. Saturday, Louisville put together a late 11-0 run to surge. Call it what you wish: the wheels coming off, stumbling at the end or choking. You could say the team wears down. Huggins' team is certainly not as deep or experienced as that of Louisville's Rick Pitino.But the Mountaineers also make their share of mindless, ill-conceived plays. More than their share.WVU center Deniz Kilicli understands. Extract some of those plays and this team is a strong contender for an NCAA at-large bid, instead of a suddenly weak one."Every team does dumb plays," Kilicli said after the loss. "The teams that have less, though, win more."He paused."It's a test of mental toughness, and today I flunked that test."Indeed, Kilicli, a junior, had a prime example of those "dumb plays" on Saturday.With 1:24 left in the first half, he was whistled for a foul. Instead of showing a bit of emotion, perhaps a little disbelief, he hoisted the ball toward the shell covering the Coliseum. Technical, on top of the personal foul.
"I slinged the ball," Kilicli said. "I didn't just throw it. I've never done that. I lost it. It was just dumb."Yep. But he wasn't alone. Also in the first half, WVU was rolling along nicely. With possession, Huggins received the benefit of the electronic media timeout at the 12-minute mark. (Note I refuse to call it a media timeout. The print media has absolutely nothing to do with those. And for that, we're proud.)Anyway, Huggins set up his play. And with the 11,254 in the Coliseum awaiting that play, freshman guard Jabarie Hinds threw the ball away -- on the inbounds pass. At the other end, Wayne Blackshear hit a trey to give the Cardinals a 20-18 lead.Give Louisville credit. Its press was very effective, even though Huggins said, "If you are allowed to press that way, we should all press."
Some of WVU's miscues against the defense, however, were just bone-headed. There was the time Truck Bryant was picked clean of the ball by Chris Smith after taking an inbounds pass. Smith then simply turned and laid the ball in.Understand that this WVU team has shown more than expected. After the Mountaineers lost their exhibition game to Northern Kentucky and the second regular-season game to Kent State, a 16-10 record, at that point, would have been welcomed.
But Huggins knows what could be."I told them after the game that we are this far away from being good," said the coach, almost pinching his fingers together. "We are that far away from somebody who is supposed to switch who doesn't switch. We are that far away from somebody making free throws -- standing up like a man and making free throws at the end of games."We are that far from getting rebounds. We didn't do the things we have to do. Our margin for error isn't very great."Bingo. This WVU team isn't loaded with great athletes. It needs to be smart and efficient. It needs to hit free throws better than at its season percentage rate of 65.4. It needs to make layups. Bryant's penchant for missing layups is uncanny.
And there are other miscues the common fan doesn't see. When Gary Browne made the game's biggest gaffe at the end, throwing the ball away with 12 seconds left, it was huge. Fired it right to Cardinal forward Kyle Kuric in the paint.But afterward Kevin Jones was taking blame."It's very unfortunate when you play your heart out like that and lose," Jones said. "I take blame on that one. I should have gone out and gotten the ball from Gary."He continued."Sometimes we make the right plays; sometimes we don't. More times we haven't. We've got to learn to win."It would help a bunch to eliminate the brain cramps. Bryant once found himself face to face with a wall of tall Louisville defenders. And, with a half-inch of separation, he decided to shoot the ball. Let's just say it didn't work out well.Now, WVU is in a pickle in regard to the NCAA tournament."I'd be lying," Jones said, "if I said nobody's panicking. But fear is good for us."He's not quitting. Nor is Kilicli. But understand the gaffes are taking a toll. On the team's record. On the players."I slinged that ball," said Kilicli, going over his technical foul for a second time. "I didn't mean to."His eyes reddened. With tears welling, he took a moment to gather himself as the post-game interviews concluded. He took a deep breath and blew out an "oh, man," before moving back to the locker room.Like Kilicli, WVU's team needs to gather itself. It needs to make free throws and layups. And it needs to eliminate bone-headed plays.For now is not the time to quit.Reach Mitch Vingle at 304-348-4827, firstname.lastname@example.org
or follow him at twitter.com/MitchVingle.