MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - It should have been readily apparent right from the start Saturday afternoon that this was not going to be West Virginia's day.
Not when right off the bat No. 14 Oklahoma State tried to almost give the game - or at least every bit of momentum - to the Mountaineers and they refused to accept it.
They did so by failing to make shots, failing to rebound and failing to hold onto the basketball, among other things. After the Cowboys overcame six turnovers in their first eight possessions and three fouls to star point guard Marcus Smart in barely 21/2 minutes to rout the Mountaineers 73-57, it was left to Bob Huggins to figure out why.
Well, the surface problems were apparent and aforementioned.
"You can't win if you [shoot 30 percent]. You can't win if you don't rebound. You can't win if you throw the ball to them,'' Huggins said. "There's a myriad of things we could mention.''
None of those, however, explain why. Twenty-seven games into a 31-game regular season, the answers don't seem to be coming.
"The thing we should be doing is getting hungrier from our losses,'' said sophomore forward Kevin Noreen. "Coach keeps saying the next team that plays us should hate to play us because we lost the last one, but there's no fight in us.''
There wasn't much Saturday as West Virginia (13-14, 6-8 Big 12) lost for the third time in four games and slipped below .500 in the conference for the first time since Feb. 2. How significant is that? Well, with four games to play, WVU needs to win three in order to finish the regular season above .500, and even that wouldn't guarantee the team a winning record if it loses the first game of the Big 12 tournament.
Those final four games are all against teams with NCAA tournament resumes or hopes, starting with Baylor at home on Wednesday night. For the record, WVU is now 0-8 against the six teams ranked above it in the Big 12 standings and 6-0 against the league's teams with no NCAA tournament hopes. The remaining four games are all against teams from the former group.
It was the seventh win in eight games for Oklahoma State (20-6, 10-4), whose only loss in the stretch was Wednesday night in two overtimes against Kansas.
How poorly did West Virginia play? Well, after beginning the game with 5-of-7 shooting and taking an early 12-5 lead, the Mountaineers went 11 for 47 (23.4 percent) the rest of the way. After leading in rebounding early by an 11-5 margin, they lost the rebounding by 30-23 the rest of the afternoon. And after watching Oklahoma State turn the ball over on six of its first eight possessions, WVU forced only eight the rest of the game while committing 17 of its own.
Noreen - who with nine points, eight rebounds, a steal, a block and an assist might have been WVU's best player - knows that none of that is what West Virginia fans are used to seeing.
"People expect excellence,'' he said. "We're not providing that.''
Oklahoma State provides it. The same team that a month ago beat WVU in Stillwater with outside shooting did it this time with balance and half its points in the paint. Instead of Phil Forte scoring 26 points from the perimeter (he scored two, both on free throws), it was a balanced attack in which all five starters scored in double figures. Le'Bryan Nash and Markel Brown led the way with 16 points each.
Even Smart, who sat out the final 17:26 of the first half with those three fouls, finished with 14 points, four assists and three steals.
"It wasn't the start we were looking for,'' OSU coach Travis Ford said. "It might have been what we needed, though.''
Indeed, with everything that went wrong, the Cowboys had to refocus, and they did. After trailing 12-5 and 15-8, they went on a 19-4 run - the first 16 points on layups and free throws - and took a 27-21 lead. West Virginia stayed close until the final 15 minutes and then just fell apart.
West Virginia got 11 points from Aaric Murray and a season-high 10 from Matt Humphrey, but it wasn't nearly enough for an offensively challenged team that seems certain to finish the season without a double-digit scorer and has reached 70 points only twice since the start of league play.
The game was also marred by 46 fouls and 51 free throws.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickm...@aol.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.
Oklahoma State 73, West Virginia 57
Oklahoma State (20-6, 10-4)
Min FG FT R A P
Le'Bryan Nash 37 7-12 2-3 3 1 16
Michael Cobbins 32 4-6 2-2 9 2 10
Phillip Jurick 13 0-0 0-0 2 0 0
Markel Brown 34 5-11 5-6 5 3 16