NEW YORK — Of all the numbers you’d associate with West Virginia basketball, some that came out of the first half of the Mountaineers’ 70-68 loss to St. John’s were not what you’d expect.
The Mountaineers, in a frenzied Madison Square Garden environment, had given up 12 offensive rebounds. They’d been turned over 13 times. St. John’s had 10 steals. In short, a team that prides itself on its toughness and workmanship was getting outworked.
“[St. John’s] competed,” WVU coach Bob Huggins said following the Mountaineers’ first loss of the season. “That’s the biggest thing. We didn’t rise to their level of aggression. We didn’t rise to their level of competitiveness.”
WVU’s Miles McBride missed a potential game-tying shot as time expired. McBride, with a pair of key steals in the final two minutes, had led the Mountaineers back.
Still, despite 18 rebounds from Derek Culver, it felt like the game had already been won.
“We’re young,” Huggins said. “We’ve got a lot of young guys and we’ve had some success. We didn’t handle it very well.
“Our preparation wasn’t very good. I told them they had a very good coach.”
WVU freshman Oscar Tshiebwe (eight points and six rebounds) seemed a shadow of himself amidst St. John’s high-pressure defense.
And it wasn’t until the 15-minute mark in the second half, when Culver rattled off two reverberating dunks, that West Virginia mounted some momentum.
“This game came down to toughness, came down to determination,” St. John’s coach Mike Anderson said. “Their big guys have been annihilating people. You saw it in the back-to-back dunks.”
St. John’s sped up the game in the first half. Sean McNeil, with a pair of well-placed 3-pointers, gave West Virginia a 32-30 lead with 3:43 to play. Culver, with a nifty baseline drive, and Brandon Knapper, who contributed two key baskets during the first-half streak, aided the run. But despite holding St. John’s (6-2) to 1 of 12 from 3-point range in the first half, the game felt lopsided.
“St. John’s was really aggressive around the ball,” Huggins said. “I thought they had every loose ball in the first half.”
In this setting, with a 36-36 halftime score, Culver took it upon himself to rally the Mountaineers. He brought West Virginia momentum with a vicious two-handed dunk. Then he dunked again a possession later for a 44-43 lead at 15:38.
It was around this time that Gabe Osabuohien, who’d provided Huggins with an unexpected second-half spark, motioned to the crowd in the Garden seats to amplify the run.
Yet West Virginia had no answers for cat-like St. John’s guard Rasheem Dunn, who multiple times drove the lane for buckets.
When St. John’s guard Greg Williams Jr. flicked in a 3-pointer at 13:00 as the shot clock expired, St. John’s had a 52-43 lead.
And despite some late-breaking runs, the Mountaineers (7-1) were clearly gassed heading into the game’s later stages.
Despite venerable efforts by Osabuohien, McNeil’s shooting (13 points), and McBride’s heroics, West Virginia was clearly spent.
“This game was going to be won in the paint,” Anderson said. “If you look at West Virginia, at their rebounding, they’ve been bigger on the boards. I think we matched their physicality.”