MORGANTOWN - West Virginia had every opportunity to salvage its season Friday night with a home win over Marquette. And if the desire to do that wasn't enough, the Golden Eagles even pitched in with a whole lot of help by suspending three of their best players for the first half.
Alas, not even that was enough for a Mountaineer team that just can't seem to win for losing these days. And suffice it to say this team has been losing a lot.
Despite a 15-point lead built with Marquette's lineup depleted, West Virginia still fell 61-60 at the Coliseum in front of a crowd of 12,087. Truck Bryant had a chance to win it at the buzzer with a short, but off-balance and closely-defended jump shot, but it missed.
"I really wanted to get to the basket and either make the shot or get fouled,'' Bryant said later after breaking out of an extended slump but still falling a basket short of what was necessary to win. "But they did a good job of pushing me away and I couldn't get there.''
While not fatal, the loss was yet another crippling blow to West Virginia's hopes of making its fifth consecutive NCAA tournament appearance. The Mountaineers (17-12, 7-9 Big East) had a chance to earn a second win over a Top 10 team and get back to .500 in the league, but now all of that will be an uphill battle.
WVU has just two games remaining -- at home Tuesday against DePaul and at South Florida a week from today. The Mountaineers must now win both just to avoid a losing record in the Big East. And even that might not be enough for an NCAA bid for a team that has now lost seven of nine after a 15-5 start. Even if West Virginia wins out it might still need to make some noise in the Big East tournament to earn an NCAA bid.
For Marquette (24-5, 13-3) the win was the fifth in a row and 12th in 13 games.
Marquette played the entire first half without three of its starters, including All-America candidate and leading scorer Darius Johnson-Odom. He, Vander Blue and David Cadougan were suspended for the first half by coach Buzz Williams, who wouldn't say what the group's transgression was other than to say they "broke team policy.''
"Our guys messed up, but it's over with now,'' he said.
With those three out, the Mountaineers led by 11 at halftime and by 15 early in the second half when Bryant hit a 3-pointer to make it 37-22 and give him 18 points in just over 22 minutes.
But with those three back for the second half, it naturally made a huge difference as the game wore on. Using the quickness they lacked in the first half, the Eagles drove almost at will against West Virginia's defense and got easy basket after easy basket. Of Marquette's 15 second-half field goals, 13 were layups, follow shots or dunks.
"They spread us out and drove on us,'' West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said. "I'd like to be able to do that but I don't have anybody who can shoot, so why should [the defense] spread?''
Indeed, West Virginia once again could not find the basket, save for Bryant, who for a month now has usually been the one who couldn't shoot straight. He scored 25 points and made five of his 11 3-point tries, but the rest of the team was 0-for-9 on 3s. Bryant shot 8-for-17 overall, but the rest of the team was 15-for-42 (35.7 percent).
Even Kevin Jones had an awful shooting night, missing all five of his 3s and going 5-for-14. He finished with just 12 points and six rebounds, well off his Big East-leading averages of 20.3 and 11.2.
"Truck finally shot the ball and now K.J. didn't shoot it,'' Huggins said. "We had shots, good shots. But we didn't make them. And then when you miss and don't get back and give them layups at the other end, it makes it tough to win.''
Somehow, though, West Virginia still had the ball and a chance to win at the end. Despite trailing by five, 61-56, with just over a minute to play the Mountaineers got back when Bryant made two free throws, Marquette didn't run enough time off the clock before Johnson-Odom drive and missed a layup and Keaton Miles countered a layup with 15 seconds to play.
When Marquette's Cadougan missed two free throws with 13.6 to play, WVU had the ball down 61-60 and a chance to win. It was down to 6.6 seconds when Gary Browne fell at halfcourt while being closely guarded, but managed to get a timeout called.
That's when WVU inbounded to Bryant and he never gave it up, getting an off-balance but fairly close shot along the baseline that missed. The ball was batted around without control as time expired.
In addition to Bryant and Jones, Deniz Kilicli had eight points, but also committed five of West Virginia's 19 turnovers. Dominique Rutledge, tying a career high by playing 19 minutes, had a game-high 10 rebounds and six points before fouling out with 1:32 to play.
Jae Crowder, the best Marquette player who did not serve a suspension, led the Eagles with 26 points. Marquette turned the ball over 10 times in the first half, but just four times in the second. WVU, meanwhile, had 10 second-half turnovers.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickm...@aol.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.
Marquette 61, WVU 60
Marquette (24-5, 13-3)
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