NEW YORK - It was all but inevitable that at some point during the final two months of the regular season West Virginia's basketball team would suffer through this kind of a night.
That it would happen on this night, in this place, and especially against this team, however, was stunning.
In the midst of its best stretch of basketball all season and playing against one of the Big East's worst teams in the best basketball arena in the world, West Virginia was stunningly inept Wednesday night, losing 78-62 to St. John's at Madison Square Garden.
Afterward, there were no excuses from a team that frankly has no excuse for playing that poorly.
"They played well,'' West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said of the Red Storm, explaining only half of the issue. "And we sucked.''
Yes, that was the other half.
Falling behind by as many as 16 points in a brutal first half, West Virginia simply started awful and never warmed up to the task. The Mountaineers shot poorly (25 percent in the first half and 35 for the game), turned the ball over (11 times in the decisive first half) and didn't rebound a lick until the outcome had been decided. By the second half the Red Storm led by as many as 21 points and was never truly threatened.
"The team that played the hardest won,'' said WVU forward Kevin Jones. "It's as simple as that.''
The stunning loss snapped a three-game win streak by the Mountaineers (15-6, 5-3 Big East), who now move on to an even more difficult assignment. On Saturday West Virginia faces No. 3 Syracuse (21-1, 8-1) at the Carrier Dome. The Orange will have been idle five days by then, having last beaten Cincinnati Monday night.
The loss also spoiled an opportunity for WVU to move into a tie for second place in the Big East with Georgetown and Marquette, both 6-2 in the league. Instead the Mountaineers are tied for fourth place.
For heretofore struggling St. John's (9-11, 3-6), the win snapped a four-game losing streak. The Red Storm had also lost six of seven and came into Wednesday night's game just 1-5 at the Garden.
This wasn't just a bad night in spots for the Mountaineers. It was across-the-board awful. Jones finished the game with 26 points and 14 rebounds - his 14th double-double of the season and 25th of his career - and Truck Bryant scored 16 points. They were WVU's only double-figure scorers, but by the time either warmed up the game was all but over.
Combined in the first half they were 4-for-14 shooting with five turnovers and St. John's dominated, rolling to a 16-point lead. As that early deficit grew (WVU never led), it seemed almost inevitable that the Mountaineers would eventually just turn things on and reverse course.
Even they seemed to think so.
"You'd like to think so, that we could get it together. I still feel like we have the better team,'' Jones said. "But again, the team that plays harder usually wins and they played harder than we did.''
In a game eerily similar to a 67-48 loss at Seton Hall on Dec. 30, West Virginia was victimized inside, fell behind and then rallied late to make things mildly interesting. In that loss at Seton Hall the Mountaineers clawed back to within six before falling apart again. Wednesday at the Garden they trailed by as many as 21, yet somehow got it down to a three-possession game, 68-59, with 2:46 to play. But that was as close as it would get.
The Mountaineers had trouble all night getting the ball inside against the St. John's zone, which was something Huggins tried to convey during practice this week but apparently could not.
"They did pretty much what I told [WVU's players] would happen,'' Huggins said. "I even showed them tape of last year when they did the same thing to us [in a win in Morgantown].''
The Red Storm had a staggering 50 points in the paint, and although St. John's lost the rebounding battle (44-40), it had the edge in the first half in a big way.
St. John's, which plays just seven players and has only one who was on the roster a year ago, got 23 points and 13 rebounds from Moe Harkless, 19 point from D'Angelo Harrison and 11 each from Amir Garrett and Phil Greene.
How much of a disaster was that first half? Well, consider that West Virginia is one of the three best rebounding teams in the Big East and St. John's is one of the two worst. Yet time and again the Red Storm beat the Mountaineers to loose balls and over the course of those 20 minutes held a 25-18 rebounding edge that would have been even worse had WVU not gotten five team rebounds on balls knocked out of bounds or on fouls.
The domination inside wasn't limited to rebounds, either. St. John's didn't score from outside point-blank range until less than five minutes remained before halftime, and of the team's 16 first-half field goals, 13 were on layups, follow shots or dunks.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickm...@aol.com.
St. John's 78, West Virginia 62
WVU (15-6, 5-3)
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