MORGANTOWN — For the third time in five games, the No. 7 WVU men’s basketball team lost a double-digit lead in the second half.
This time it cost the Mountaineers a chance for some national respect, and it handed the SEC its first-ever victory in the annual Big 12/SEC Challenge following an 83-76 loss against Kentucky, on Jan. 27.
For those keeping track, WVU (16-5, 5-3 Big 12) has now lost an 11-point lead and lost at Texas Tech and a 12-point lead with 7:56 remaining and lost against Kansas. But what happened in front of 15,835 fans inside a packed WVU Coliseum was something entirely different.
“We couldn’t keep them off the glass,” WVU head coach Bob Huggins said. “They man-handled us.”
The Mountaineers, after a basket in the paint from Wesley Harris with 18:57 remaining, led 50-33.
Kentucky (16-5, 5-3 SEC) dominated from there. Not only on the scoreboard — the Wildcats outscored WVU, 50-28, in the second half — but in the paint, on 3-point shooting and with offensive rebounds and second-chance points.
“We didn’t block out and they got most of the rebounds,” said WVU center Sagaba Konate, who finished with 13 points and seven blocks, but sat out a large portion of the second half in foul trouble. “That was the difference. We didn’t stay and help out. We didn’t rebound.”
Kevin Knox connected on three crucial 3-pointers, including one with 1:04 remaining that gave the Wildcats the lead for good, 77-74. The talented freshman from Tampa, Fla., finished with 34 points and seven rebounds. He connected on 5 of 8 from 3-point range.
“The thing that kills me is, we come out and the whole idea is we weren’t going to leave Knox,” Huggins said. “I don’t even think we know where he was. He was the guy making shots.”
He made enough to give the SEC its first victory in the Challenge in five years. The SEC won six of the day’s 10 games.
WVU fell to 1-4 all-time in the Challenge, but this one came with ESPN “College GameDay” in town and an electric feel in the air.
As WVU ran out to a 48-33 halftime lead, that feeling intensified. Jevon Carter was nearly unstoppable with 18 of his 24 points in the first half, while the Mountaineers forced 10 turnovers in the game’s first 10 minutes.
It all changed in the second half, which is quickly becoming a disturbing theme for WVU.
“I don’t know why it happens, honestly,” WVU guard James “Beetle” Bolden said. “We don’t try to go out there and lose the lead. I just don’t know the answer.”
WVU has now lost two consecutive games for the second time this season and faces a challenging Big 12 schedule over its final 10 regular-season games, including road trips to Kansas and Oklahoma.
The Mountaineers will certainly fall out of the top 10 of the rankings and must find some answers on how to find offense when athletic teams turn up the pressure.
“We tried to run offense and tried to slow them down,” Carter said. “We need to take better shots. We got pretty stagnant in the second half.”
“We haven’t figured that out, yet,” Carter said.
Kentucky figured out how to rebound and attack the rim in the second half, especially after Konate left the game in foul trouble.
The Wildcats had 13 offensive rebounds in the second half and turned those into 18 second-chance points.
For the game, Kentucky held a 49-34 rebounding advantage and a 26-14 lead in second-half points.
Meanwhile, WVU shot 11 of 34 (32.4 percent) and was just 3 of 12 from 3-point range in the second half.
“They’re good,” Huggins said. “You guys are acting like we just played Mount St. Mary’s or somebody. They’re good. I shouldn’t have said Mount St. Mary’s, because they could probably beat us right now.”