PITTSBURGH - Given the way West Virginia has played for the past two months, it was inevitable that when the Mountaineers' season ended it would not end well. There was no inkling, however, that it would end this ugly.
A team that had an agonizing habit of not being able to finish games didn't even start this one. As a result, the Mountaineers exited the NCAA tournament and their 2012 season with a resounding thud.
Falling behind virtually from the start, WVU was simply crushed by Gonzaga Thursday night in the East regional at the Consol Energy Center. The final score was 77-52, the Mountaineers' fourth-worst drubbing in its NCAA tourney history.
All that pre-game talk of who was the tougher team? It was answered resoundingly.
"I think we knew they were going to come out aggressive just by the way they were talking before the game, very aggressive and tough-minded,'' Kevin Jones said. "They stayed that way throughout the whole game. That's something that we didn't do. They played better team basketball than we did. That really helped them. They shared the ball. They found open guys and the guys made shots.''
The loss brought to an almost merciful end a season in which the Mountaineers won 15 of their first 20 games and were on the verge of being ranked in the Top 25 before losing nine of the final 13. That was still more than enough to earn West Virginia (19-14) its fifth straight NCAA tournament berth, but Thursday's loss also snapped the school's streak of seven straight 20-win seasons and is the most losses since the 17-14 team of 2004.
It also brought to a close the careers of the highest-scoring duo from one senior class in WVU history. It was the final game for both Jones and Truck Bryant, 1,500-point scorers who combined to play 274 games.
Gonzaga (26-6) moves on to a Saturday game against the winner of Thursday night's late game between second-seeded and No. 7 Ohio State and No. 15 seed Loyola (Md.).
For Jones, the end was an awful one. The leading scorer and rebounder in the Big East and a member of multiple All-America lists scored just 13 points and had only four rebounds, far below his averages of 20.1 and 11.2.
"They played a heck of a game on both ends of the court. They did a good job of helping down on me and my teammates weren't able to hit open shots,'' Jones said. "That's just been the story of our year this whole year.''
It was also another grueling night for Bryant, who had only nine points on 2-for-10 shooting. Not only that, he and the Mountaineers were badly outplayed by Gonzaga's freshman backcourt of Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr., who had 25 points between them at halftime and didn't even have to score in the second. They ended up with a combined 27 points.
"I just feel like they out-toughed us,'' said Bryant, who finished his career with 123 starts, second only to Joe Herber's 128 on the school's all-time list. "I mean, both of them combined for about 25 in the first half. We just let them get going. By the time we tried to stop them it was too late.''
Indeed, even if the Mountaineers had played better in the second half they would have had trouble rallying from an 18-point deficit. As it was, they played even worse and the margin only grew.
"There was a feeling of frustration throughout the whole game. It was definitely desperation during the second half,'' said Jones, who exits WVU as the school's fifth-leading scorer. "We were down by so many points and we weren't playing defense. They came out tougher, more aggressive, more energized than we were. You see the result of it. They were the better team.''
In a small nod to the future, freshman guard Gary Browne was WVU's leading scorer with 15 points and three assists. But overall West Virginia shot just 16-for-49 (32.7 percent) and missed 14 of its 17 3-pointers.
Gonzaga, meanwhile, shot 56 percent, made nine of its 17 3-pointers and dominated from start to finish.
How did it happen? Well, West Virginia was simply awful from the start, which was uncharacteristic even for a team that had won only four games since Jan. 21. In virtually all of those losses the Mountaineers at least began games competitively. Not so Thursday.
At one point in the first half they went over eight minutes without a field goal and in one stretch of 12 possessions scored just one point, missed 10 shots and turned the ball over three times. They were also at one point 1-for-6 from the foul line.
Of course, all of that was compounded by the fact that Gonzaga had no problem putting the ball in the basket, making 12 of its first 21 shots and six of its first eight 3-point attempts. The result was that the Zags erased their only deficit of the night, 2-0, quickly and led 27-10 by the eight-minute mark.
They did that even with one of their best players, forward Elias Harris, playing just four minutes after picking up two quick fouls. Pangos made the first five shots he took in an NCAA tournament game and it was clear that Gonzaga's freshmen were better than West Virginia's.
By the half, the Zags led 40-22, were shooting 50 percent to West Virginia's 23 percent and even had a sizable rebounding edge.
The second half was no better. Bryant finally made his first shot after an 0-for-7 start to get West Virginia within 20 points, 48-29, but Gonzaga's next basket was a breakaway dunk and soon the lead was up to 26 at 57-31. It was merely a matter of going through the motions after that.
It was the worst NCAA loss for WVU since a 102-77 loss to Maryland in the second round of the 1984 tournament. The only other more lopsided defeats were by 24 points to Providence in 1965 and by 34 points to LaSalle in the school's first NCAA tourney game in 1955.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or dphickm...@aol.com or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.
GONZAGA 77, WEST VIRGINIA 54
West Virginia (19-14)
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