PHILADELPHIA - It is just the nature of the way West Virginia's basketball team is winning games these days that the margin for error is razor thin.
If the Mountaineers don't defend almost perfectly, rebound aggressively and make the shots they manage to create for themselves, they just aren't going to win.
Saturday afternoon's 66-50 loss to No. 12 Villanova at the Wells Fargo Center is Exhibit No. 1.
West Virginia actually defended pretty well, save for a few stretches when the Wildcats simply made great plays or tough shots. The rebounding - despite the fact that the Mountaineers lost that battle for the first time since Jan. 1 - was good enough, too.
But at the end of the first half, WVU missed 18 of 20 shots. The Mountaineers went 0-for-9 during a decisive five-minute stretch of the second half. Six of those misses were open 3-pointers that could have dramatically changed the face of the game.
So it was really no wonder that this one eventually just got away from No. 25 West Virginia, which in its first six losses this season fell by a combined 27 points but seemed in danger of losing this one by that much as Villanova dominated the final 10 minutes after leading by just three points earlier in the second half.
"The truth of the matter is, I said to our guys before the Kentucky game a year ago [in the NCAA's Elite Eight], 'I know we'll guard, I know we'll rebound. If we just make some shots we'll be fine,' '' West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said after Saturday's loss. "We made some shots [and beat Kentucky]. We didn't make any shots [Saturday]. Five-for-12 from the foul line? There are probably eighth-grade teams that shoot better than that. We didn't shoot the ball.''
The loss snapped a two-game win streak for the Mountaineers (15-7, 6-4 Big East), who for the second time this season figure to exit the Top 25 after a one-week cameo.
For Villanova (19-4, 7-3), the win was the second straight after the Wildcats had lost three of four to slip out of the Top 10. Villanova's schedule gets a bit easier over the next four games with three opponents from near the bottom of the standings, although all three are on the road.
The Mountaineers had just one player who shot the ball close to his capability Saturday. John Flowers was 5-for-9 and made three 3-pointers. He made a 3 that was one of only two WVU baskets over the final 15 minutes of the first half and another to start the second half and ignite a surge that cut an 11-point halftime deficit to three. Flowers finished with 15 points.
Elsewhere, though, the pickings were slim. Kevin Jones shot 50 percent (8-for-16), but four of those misses came during that 2-for-20 drought in the first half and pretty much set the tone. He scored 16 points but was 0-for-4 at the foul line and has now somehow missed eight in a row dating back to a miss at the end of a win at Cincinnati.
"We did a good job of getting the ball in the middle where K.J. usually makes those 15-footers,'' point guard Joe Mazzulla said. "But they didn't go in this time.''
As for everyone else? Well, aside from Jones and Flowers, the Mountaineers shot 6-for-28 (21 percent). Dalton Pepper provided a little bit of a spark with two 3-pointers in the early second-half run, but he was 0-for-3 on open 3s in that first-half drought. Casey Mitchell played for the first time in four games but didn't score in nine minutes. Jonnie West was used to try to create a spark and immediately got off two 3s. Both missed.
And Truck Bryant had his fourth straight one-fer and fifth in the last six games. He was 1-for-5 from the field and is now 7-for-40 in the last six games (1-for-6, 2-9, 1-8, 1-5, 1-7, 1-5).
"There comes a point where you're not going to be able to hold every team to 50 or 60 points,'' Jones said. "At some point you have to make open shots. And that was our Achilles heel [Saturday].''
Not that Villanova didn't contribute, of course. The Wildcats made getting open shots difficult, but West Virginia is used to having to work hard to create scoring opportunities.
"I don't want to take anything away from what they did. They played great; really, really well,'' Huggins said to a group of assembled media afterward. "But the truth is I could get five of you out here and put you in a zone and we couldn't make shots.''
The toughest thing for the Mountaineers on this day, though, was that there were brief periods when they did make shots and could have taken control of the game. They began the game 4-for-5 from the floor in taking a 10-4 lead, and went 9-for-11 at the start of the second half.
But Villanova was 8-for-11 over that same second-half stretch and never cooled down, shooting 70 percent (14-for-20) in the last 20 minutes. West Virginia's defense may have broken down a few times to allow some of those shots, but the main factor was that guards Maalik Wayns (17 points) and Corey Fisher (16) just made great plays. In addition to 33 points, they combined for nine assists.
"It's very frustrating to go on a run and make some shots like we did, and then every time we scored they came back and scored,'' said Flowers. "But we had to defend, too. We didn't always do that.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickm...@aol.com.
Villanova 66, West Virginia 50
West Virginia (15-7, 6-4)
Player FG FT R A P
Cam Thoroughman 0-3 2-3 4 2 2