STARKVILLE, Miss. -- It took West Virginia a while adjust to a lot of different things Saturday night, like playing on the road and facing a team with every bit as much or more size and athleticism as the Mountaineers and far more experience.
Once WVU settled in, though, the Mountaineers turned this Big East-SEC Challenge game into a good one. But in the end, the Bulldogs and foul trouble were just too much for West Virginia to handle.
After fighting back from a slow start and 10-point deficit to draw even most of the second half, West Virginia faded over the final seven minutes and lost 75-62 to No. 21 Mississippi State at Humphrey Coliseum.
But the nature of the game and the way West Virginia rallied and made a game of it with its cast of freshmen playing such a large role did little to encourage coach Bob Huggins. In fact, afterward he was asked if he thought Mississippi State was a legitimate threat to make the NCAA tournament.
"I'm only concerned with my team right now,'' Huggins said. "I think [Mississippi State] is really good. I think we suck right now.''
The loss, to a team ranked in both major polls and the first ranked foe West Virginia has faced, snapped a three-game win streak for the Mountaineers (4-2), who also lost their only true road game of the pre-Big East season.
The Mountaineers have a game coming up against Kansas State Thursday on the road, but that's at Intrust Bank Arena in Wichita, about two hours from the Kansas State campus.
Mississippi State (8-1) won its seventh straight. Oddly, the Bulldogs' only loss this season was Nov. 9 at Humphrey Coliseum to Akron, the team West Virginia beat by 21 points Monday.
As for Huggins' take on his team, he had trouble seeing beyond the mistakes the Mountaineers made at crucial times. West Virginia had 11 turnovers, not a terrible number but they came at awful times. For instance, with 51/2 minutes to play, freshman big man Pat Forsythe found himself with the ball at the top of the circle and telegraphed a pass to fellow freshman Gary Browne. MSU point guard Dee Bost picked it off and ran down and dunked.
That the was second basket in what would be an 11-3 run that turned a 56-54 WVU deficit into a 67-57 hole and effectively ended any suspense.
"You live for those moments,'' Huggins said of Bost's steal and dunk.
And then there was the play of 6-11 MSU forward Arnett Moultrie. He had 21 points and 13 rebounds and twice simply took over the game and dominated it. The first was after the Mountaineers had erased that 10-point deficit to take a one-point lead in the second half. The second was just prior to that 11-3 run.
"He kicked our tails,'' Huggins said of Moultrie. "We didn't guard him very well.''
Part of that, though, was due to the foul trouble incurred by the Mountaineers. Kevin Jones picked up his third foul with just over three minutes to play in the first half and was limited to 25 minutes. He managed 14 points and nine rebounds, but his absence was crucial.
"If he gets in foul trouble we're not nearly as good,'' Huggins said.
Jones also made just six of his 17 field goal attempts and was o-for-6 on 3-pointers. Guard Truck Bryant was five-of-14 overall and missed five of his six 3s. And Mississippi State's defense had little to do with it.
"There were times when both those guys were as open as from me to you,'' Huggins said, sitting 10 feet from anyone else.
West Virginia would finish the game shooting 39.7 percent and missed 13 of 15 3-point shots.
The Mountaineers did get 14 points and seven rebounds from Deniz Kilicli, pounding the ball inside at every opportunity. Bryant had 13 points and freshman guard Jabarie Hinds 10.
But the Mountaineers played key stretches without Jones and Hinds. Hinds was also in foul trouble.
Bost had 17 points, seven assists and five steals for Mississippi State.
Trailing by just two at half after fighting back from that 10-point deficit, West Virginia nearly took control to start the second half. Even with Jones on the bench, the Mountaineers continued pounding the ball inside with Kilicli and took a 35-34 lead. But despite hanging around and remaining competitive throughout most of the second half, that would be WVU's only lead of the night.
As for the beginning, West Virginia struggled from the outset trying to adjust to Mississippi State's athleticism and size, falling behind immediately and slowly seeing the deficit grow to double digits. The Bulldogs' 10-point leads in the first half were 23-13 and 25-15.
One quick series illustrated what the Mountaineers found themselves up against. On one end of the floor, DeVille Smith, a 5-11 freshman guard, stunned West Virginia when he sliced to the basket in a half court offense and slammed the ball home. Then a few seconds later on the other end, 6-9 junior Wendell Lewis, like Smith a reserve, swatted a Jones shot into the bleachers.
Combined with Moultrie making 3-pointers and Bost dishing out five first-half assists, it was an eye-opener for the Mountaineers.
They eventually adjusted, but not until it was too late.
BRIEFLY: West Virginia is now 1-1 all time against Mississippi State. The win was in the semifinals of the 2007 NIT at Madison Square Garden, a game the Mountaineers won on Darris Nichols' shot from the corner at the buzzer.
| Tim Higgins did not disappear after all. The veteran referee, whose final game last spring was a controversial ending to a Big East tournament game, was on Saturday night's game along with Doug Shows and Doug Sirmons.
| After Thursday night's game at Kansas State, West Virginia is home for three straight, beginning with a Saturday night game against Miami.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickm...@aol.com.
West Virginia (4-2)