PITTSBURGH - West Virginia needed to play as close to its potential as possible Thursday night in order to beat No. 4 Pitt at the Petersen Events Center. The way the Mountaineers actually wound up playing was pretty well summed up by a single possession in the second half.
Kevin Jones missed an open 15-footer, but the Mountaineers rebounded. Casey Mitchell had an open 20-footer that clanked out, but again WVU got it back. Joe Mazzulla drove to the basket and was promptly rejected out of bounds by Pitt's Gary McGhee. And finally, Jones finished the single possession the way it began, by missing another 15-footer.
No, that actually wasn't a key moment in the game any more so than a lot of others. But more than most it summed up the way the Mountaineers played - doing so many things right, yet never being able to capitalize.
The end result was a 71-58 loss to the Panthers in a game in which West Virginia somehow overcame those shooting woes to lead by a point at halftime, but fell behind quickly in the second half and never recovered in front of a sellout crowd of 12,876 at Petersen Events Center.
"We've done this how many games this seasons, have a good first half and don't play the second?'' asked senior forward Cam Thoroughman. "We have to take care of that, but we're running out of time.''
Indeed, the loss was yet another blow to West Virginia's standing in the Big East, which continues to be precarious in regard to a conference tournament bye with just three games remaining. Thursday's loss kept the Mountaineers (17-10, 8-7 Big East) in a tie for 9th place, now with Marquette and Connecticut, a game behind Cincinnati and Villanova (both 9-6).
With three games remaining, though (at Rutgers Sunday and home to UConn and Louisville next week), WVU has plenty of opportunity to work back into the top half of the league, where the top four teams earn two-round byes in the league tournament and the next four have a one-round pass. Remaining in the bottom half, however, would mean playing on Tuesday, March 8, at Madison Square Garden and facing five games in five days to win the event.
"We're still in pretty good position,'' said Jones, who was front and center as the poster boy for West Virginia's shooting woes Thursday night, missing nine of 13 shots and failing to score in the game's final 23 minutes. "But we don't have much time left.''
Pitt (25-3, 13-2), meanwhile, strengthened its hold on first place in the Big East, going a full two games up on second-place Notre Dame (11-4) with just three to play. The Panthers, though, will have to have some combination of wins or Irish losses totaling two in order to claim the top seed in the Big East tournament because Notre Dame owns the tie-breaker, courtesy of Pitt's only home loss of the season, to the Irish, a month ago.
No other team can catch the Panthers for the top spot.
Two and a half weeks ago in Morgantown, Pitt beat the Mountaineers 71-66 by scoring inside and dominating the boards. The Mountaineers pretty much solved those problems here Thursday night - at least when the game was competitive -- but they couldn't defend Pitt's shot.
While West Virginia was shooting 33 percent for the game (and 26 percent in the second half, during which WVU made just six field goals), the Panthers were making 57 percent of their shots.
That inability to make shots - as well as some defensive breakdowns - was what bothered coach Bob Huggins.
"We gave up a bunch [of points] that we don't normally give up, in transition and our half-court defense wasn't as good,'' Huggins said. "But we can't keep throwing it to two feet [within the basket] and not make shots. We can't do it. We can't overcome that.
"But [Pitt is] good. They're 25-3. They're good. Who is coming in here and winning?''
West Virginia had but one scorer Thursday night. Casey Mitchell led the Mountaineers with 22 points, but all but five of those came in the final 111/2 minutes after WVU had already fallen behind by double figures and really didn't stand much of a chance. No one else finish in double figures, even Jones, who had nine points at halftime.
Pitt got 15 points from Nasir Robinson and 11 each from Gilbert Brown and Brad Wannamaker, shot 57 percent for the game, 65 percent in the second half and managed to win the rebounding battle, 33-30, with a late flurry.
But for the most part, West Virginia corrected the mistakes it made in that earlier loss. Pitt didn't get 18 offensive rebounds this time. In fact, WVU got more of its own misses, 12-8. But that earlier-mentioned series was an example of what it accomplished, which was nothing.
"I don't want to say that it was only [poor shooting], but it would have helped if we'd made some shots, that's for sure,'' said Thoroughman, who scored five points and had three assists and a steal. "You can't shoot 33 percent and allow 57 percent and still win. We even took more shots than they did, too.''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickm...@aol.com.
PITT 71, WVU 58
WVU (17-10, 8-7)
Player FG FT R A P