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Time is running out on Mountaineers

AP Photo
Phil Forte scored 26 points in Oklahoma State's 80-66 win over West Virginia on Jan. 26.

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Just before his team was about to practice for the final time leading up to today's Big 12 rematch with Oklahoma State at the Coliseum, Bob Huggins was explaining what went wrong the last time the teams met.

It was Jan. 26 in Stillwater and West Virginia stormed out to a quick early lead. The Mountaineers were ahead 24-11 with 51/2 minutes to go before halftime, only to fall completely apart, lose every bit of that 13-point lead and then some, trail by 30-27 at the half and eventually get blown out by the Cowboys 80-66.

It was actually not an unfamiliar place for West Virginia, which oftentimes this season has failed to respond when things start going badly.

"We sometimes haven't handled adversity very well,'' Huggins said, prompting someone to ask if the Mountaineers had handled it well at any time this season. He hesitated a moment when nothing immediate came to mind.

"Well, when you have to think that hard,'' Huggins said, "we probably haven't done it that well.''

Indeed, during a disappointing season that could wind up being just the third losing season in his 31-year head coaching career, Huggins has seen his team fall into bad spots almost routinely. With the exception of only a few games - a late rally to earn an overtime win at Texas way back on Jan. 9 is the best example - there have been few times when the Mountaineers were able to reverse course.

It's happened when WVU was ahead, behind and in close games, and it's not a brand-new phenomenon.

"You know, I was thinking this morning that if you really look back [to last season] we really had the Connecticut game won in the first round of the Big East tournament and we just handed it to them,'' Huggins said, referring to a game in which WVU led by 11 points deep into the second half. "It's the same guys. You say, 'Well, they're sophomores.' And last year we said, 'Well, they're freshmen. They'll get better.' Well, they've got to get better.''

It would be nice if they got better quickly. It could be the difference between playing in the postseason for the 10th straight season or not for the Mountaineers.

With just five regular-season games left, West Virginia (13-13, 6-7 Big 12) begins its stretch run with today's 2 p.m. home game against Oklahoma State (19-6, 9-4). The game will be televised by ESPN2.

There are two other home games (Baylor and Iowa State) and two road games (Kansas and Oklahoma) to play before the Big 12 tournament in Kansas City. But against the five teams remaining on the regular-season schedule, WVU is 0-5 so far. It will take some improved play to get any wins at all in that stretch.

Huggins thinks it can happen, but if it does it will be because the Mountaineers have learned to handle adversity, which is sure to arise.

"We have constantly kind of given the ball to people for some unexplained reasons,'' Huggins said. "If you remember that Connecticut game, we were just standing there holding the ball and [Shabazz] Napier just stole it from us twice out of our hands and shot layups. And there were a lot of those things that happened a year ago and they're the same guys that we're playing now.

"I don't know that that's adversity, though. Look at the Texas Tech game. You get ahead and you just kind of relax and stop playing.''

Indeed, there have been times this season when West Virginia has given up all or most of big leads and other times when the Mountaineers were never even competitive. There have been a few when they did handle adversity well and made some late rallies, but more often than not it was too little, too late.

Much of that is simply focus and desire. Huggins has preached the same thing to his team all season about not taking plays off, and his players repeat the mantra time and again. But they don't always follow it.

"I think the thing that we've been pretty good at here is that we've been pretty consistent on trying to play every play. Don't take plays off,'' Huggins said, referring to his past teams. "The guys would constantly talk about, 'Don't take plays off.' And this group has taken plays off on a consistent basis.''

As he often does, Huggins brought up Da'Sean Butler as an example. By the time he graduated, Butler was one of the all-time greats at West Virginia, but it didn't always look like he would reach that level. At least not until he was a junior and a senior.

"He didn't do the things he did as a sophomore. He didn't take plays off,'' Huggins said. "You talked to him and he really took it to heart. And that's where these guys have got to get to. It's not like they don't know. It's not like they haven't heard it.''

Against Oklahoma State today, West Virginia faces challenges on multiple fronts. Forward Le'Bryan Nash was expected to be one of the top players in the Big 12 this season and 6-foot-11 center Philip Jurick is a beast, but the Cowboys have done their best work in the backcourt with freshman point guard Marcus Smart and scorers Markel Brown and Phil Forte.

When the teams met in Stillwater, those three combined for 63 of OSU's 80 points, including 26 from Forte.

"They're hard to guard because they can spread you so much because Forte has such great range,'' Huggins said. "And Brown is probably as good an athlete as there is in the league. They're good. That's probably the best three guards in the league.''

Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickman1@aol.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.

 


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