SYRACUSE, N.Y. - Three days after suffering the embarrassment that was Wednesday night's meltdown against St. John's, West Virginia put together exactly the kind of performance that until that debacle had elevated the Mountaineers to one of the country's most pleasant surprises.
OK, so maybe the bottom line was no different. A loss is, after all a loss, be it 78-62 or 63-61.
But that the latter of those scores came against No. 3 Syracuse in front of a raucous crowd of 28,740 on Saturday afternoon in a game the Mountaineers could have - and perhaps should have - won was at the very least encouraging.
"Losses are different,'' West Virginia forward Kevin Jones said. "It depends on how you lose and who you lose to. But this one hurts.''
Indeed, Saturday's 63-61 loss at the Carrier Dome will smart for a while. It will sting for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was that the Mountaineers led for much of the first half, led again in the second, had the basketball for most of the game's final 88 seconds and had five shots to tie or win.
It will hurt, too, because of what is pretty much universally agreed was a missed goaltending call in the last 10 seconds when West Virginia's Deniz Kilicli put back an airball 3-point attempt by Truck Bryant and SU's Baye Keita blocked it after it hit the glass.
But not to be lost in all of that is what is perhaps most important to West Virginia in the long run. After laying an egg Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden in a 16-point loss to all-freshman St. John's, the Mountaineers didn't miss a beat. They played at the Carrier Dome against clearly the Big East's best team just like the team that rose to as high as No. 11 in the RPI before Wednesday's loss.
"I'm very happy about our team's performance. I'm very happy about how we fought and how we all really came together against a really good, top-five team,'' said Jones, who had 20 points and eight rebounds. "But at the end of the day there are no moral victories.''
"We fought hard. But hard wasn't good enough.''
No, but it was close - and encouraging - against a team that just seems to have WVU's number, having now won five in a row (none of the current Mountaineers have beaten SU) and 13 of the last 14. For the most part West Virginia did what it wanted to do against the Orange, now 22-1 overall and 9-1 in the Big East, the only blemish a loss a week ago at Notre Dame.
The Mountaineers (15-7, 5-4) largely took Syracuse out of any sort of half-court offense, forcing the Orange to throw up 20 3-pointers, 16 of which missed. They also pounded the ball inside against an SU team without 7-foot sophomore Fab Melo for the third game in a row and got his replacements, Baye Keita and Rakeem Christmas, in foul trouble. WVU outrebounded the Orange by a whopping 41-20 and controlled the tempo most of the afternoon.
"They're a fast-break team. They want to get out,'' Jones said. "And when you stop their fast-break opportunities they get a little antsy and frustrated. That's what we wanted to do. That's what Notre Dame did with them.''
It almost worked. West Virginia didn't trail until the final 64 seconds of the first half and then, after falling behind by as many as six points in the second, never trailed by more than four points over the final 16 minutes and had a couple of short-lived leads.
At the end, though, the Mountaineers couldn't make the play they needed. The missed goaltending call aside, WVU missed 3-pointers by Jabarie Hinds, Truck Bryant and two by Jones after Brandon Triche made two free throws to make it 63-61 with 1:28 to go. Jones had just drained a 3 to tie the score 15 seconds earlier.
West Virginia's first chance was the possession after the Triche free throws, when Hinds had a good look at a 3 and then Bryant another after one of 19 offensive rebounds. Syracuse finally got the rebound with about a minute to play, but got a lousy forced shot by Dion Waiters at the end of the shot clock.
That gave WVU the ball with 26.2 seconds, but Syracuse defended well and Bryant shot his air ball 3 at about the 10-second mark. Kilicli got the rebound and put it back up and Keita blocked it, apparently after it hit the glass, which should have been goaltending.
"We should have at least had the chance to go to overtime,'' coach Bob Huggins said.
Still, the Mountaineers had yet another chance because freshman guard Gary Browne forced a turnover and 6.2 seconds remained. But first Kilicli passed out of the post, Hinds gave it up after driving into the lane and then Jones missed an almost desperation 3 at the buzzer.
"It was kind of a broken play,'' Jones said. "Jabarie got the ball and was going to the basket and I was actually going in to go and rebound because it looked like he was going to shoot. But at the last second he passed it to me, which I wasn't expecting. I just had to heave up a shot as quick as I could with the clock going down. But it wasn't the look we wanted.''
Still, the afternoon did not seem a total loss except for, well, the loss. After playing so poorly Wednesday and so much better three days later, it was not an upbeat team that left the Carrier Dome, but perhaps an encouraged one.
"It was a step forward, but then again it wasn't. We lost,'' Bryant said. "We didn't come ready to play on Wednesday. We came ready to play [Saturday].''
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickm...@aol.com.
Syracuse 63, WVU 61
WEST VIRGINIA (15-7, 5-4)
FG FT Reb
Min M-A M-A O-T A PF PTS
Jones 40 8-18 2-2 4-8 0 2 20
Kilicli 27 2-10 1-5 2-5 1 2 5
Miles 10 0-1 0-0 1-4 4 2 0
Hinds 30 3-5 0-0 3-5 3 1 6
Bryant 39 4-11 2-2 0-5 3 2 12
Rutledge 9 1-1 0-0 1-3 1 0 2