NEW YORK - West Virginia and Connecticut could have saved everyone a whole bunch of time and trouble Saturday by just announcing their intent to play a do-over.They could have removed a lot of the angst involved, too, had they admitted they had arranged not just to follow the same script, but to use pretty much the same ending, as well.Then again, did we really need to be clued in ahead of time? Shouldn't we have known how this was going to turn out?Haven't we seen this movie before?"We were playing well,'' West Virginia guard Truck Bryant said. "We had the lead and we were about to put the game away. That's how I saw it. And then the tables turned and they made the key plays down the stretch.''If that sounds familiar, it should. By Bryant's calculation, Wednesday's 71-67 overtime loss to UConn in the Big East tournament was probably the fourth or fifth time this season the Mountaineers have blown a late lead.Actually that's a conservative estimate. It's the sixth time since the last week of January that the Mountaineers have lost a second-half lead. Shoot, it's the second time this season West Virginia has blown a double-digit lead in the last 10 minutes against Connecticut.You want eerily similar? How about losing a 46-36 lead in the final 10:24 before losing by seven in Hartford, Conn., and then losing a 47-36 lead in the final 10:20 before falling by four in overtime at the tournament?OK, so those are perhaps coincidental, or at least the near-exact circumstances are such. What isn't coincidental is how and why the Mountaineers continue to lose these leads.It sounds like picking on kids or oversimplifying things, but it still goes back to playing a lineup of newbies around Bryant and Kevin Jones, and when games get tight they just don't handle the pressure very well.It's almost as if they find themselves in a predicament like the one Wednesday at Madison Square Garden - leading, but being pressured - and think, "Oh, boy. Here we go again.''Jones swears that's not the case, but it's hard to see it any other way."We just didn't make the plays at the end that we needed to make, and that's what our season has been,'' Jones said. "If we'd made some of those plays at the end of games we'd have 25 wins now instead of whatever we have .''But how many times have Jones or Bryant or coach Bob Huggins lamented that fact? The bottom line is that while West Virginia's freshmen - at least the two playing the most minutes, Jabarie Hinds and Gary Browne - have played pretty well on the whole, they have not done nearly as well in clutch situations at the end of games.So guys like Jones and Huggins end up facing the same questions about what went wrong in the end of a game West Virginia appeared well on its way toward winning.
For his part, Huggins isn't all that diplomatic as a general rule. Like Wednesday, when he was asked about Jones' absence down the stretch. Jones scored just one field goal and two free throws in the game's final 15:20 (including the overtime) as Connecticut outscored the Mountaineers 35-20. He had no points in the final 11:17.Of course, he seldom touched the basketball in that span, so scoring would be a teensy bit problematic.
"Yeah, he was playing with a bunch of freshmen that don't have any idea what the hell they're doing,'' Huggins said when asked about Jones' absence. "I mean, we run a set to start the game with him and he's wide open and we look him off. They don't mean to. They're good kids. They don't mean to."You hope that your freshmen get better and start to understand a little bit better.''Understanding the Mountaineers no doubt do by this point. Executing what they know, though, is different. After 32 games it should be rote by now. Obviously it's not.And if the end-game experience doesn't improve before West Virginia embarks on to the NCAA tournament trail or wherever the Mountaineers end up, the results are not likely to be any different.
"You hope that it will end sometime, but they've played their hearts out. It's not that,'' Jones said. "You just hope that they'll make better decisions, but that comes with age and maturity. I'm sure they won't make the same mistakes next year.''Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or email@example.com
or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.CONNECTICUT 71, WEST VIRGINIA 67 OTConnecticut (20-12)
Min FG FT R A PSmith 19 0-0 0-2 0 1 0Oriakhi 36 3-4 0-0 5 0 6Drummond 32 3-3 1-2 4 1 7Lamb 43 9-16 1-1 8 1 22Napier 40 7-18 8-9 4 6 26Giffey 16 0-1 0-0 1 1 0Olander 4 0-0 0-0 1 0 0Boatright 35 3-9 4-8 1 3 10Team 7Totals 225 25-51 14-22 31 13 71West Virginia (19-13) Min FG FT R A PJones 44 10-21 4-4 10 0 25Miles 9 0-4 0-0 2 0 0Kilicli 19 3-8 0-0 4 0 6Hinds 33 3-8 0-0 2 1 6Bryant 44 4-14 10-13 3 1 20Rutledge 27 3-8 0-0 11 3 6Brown 19 0-4 0-0 4 0 0Browne 30 2-4 0-0 4 3 4Williamson 0 0-1 0-0 0 0 0Team 7Totals 225 25-72 14-17 47 8 67Halftime: West Virginia 30-26. End of regulation: Tied 65-65. 3-point goals: Connecticut 7-18 (Napier 4-10, Lamb 3-8), West Virginia 3-19 (Bryant 2-8, Jones 1-8, Brown 0-1, Browne 0-1). Fouled out: Napier, Kilicli. Technical fouls: None. Attendance: 20,057.