NEW YORK — Confused. Befuddled. Hesitant.
This was every bit the West Virginia men’s basketball team that fell to a quicker and more determined St. John’s, 70-68, on Saturday in front of 7,281 fans inside Madison Square Garden.
It was also every bit the Mountaineers before they even left for the Big Apple.
“We weren’t ready to go,” WVU head coach Bob Huggins said. “I told our guys that (on Friday). I told them, ‘You guys are taking a heck of a chance now. You’re going to go in there and get whacked, because you’re not ready to play.’
“Our execution sucked. Defensively, we were really bad. Offensively, we were worse.”
Much of that had to do with the Red Storm (8-2), which have won four in a row and picked up their first win of the season against an opponent from a Power Five conference.
“We know our team is going to fight,” St. John’s coach Mike Anderson said. “We may not be the most talented team, but we have some pieces. It’s not always about being the best team. As we continue to work and understand what guys bring to the table, we are going to be on our way to being a pretty good basketball team. We saw it today on display.”
Case in point, when the game’s leading scorer — St. John’s L.J. Figueroa with 17 points — went out of the game with his fourth foul with 14:09 remaining, the Red Storm simply did not back down.
Holding a slim 47-43 lead at that point, St. John’s expanded that to a 56-46 advantage less than four minutes later.
Much of it was St. John’s putting constant pressure on the Mountaineers’ guards, enough to force a season-high 22 turnovers.
“A lot of it was just making bad passes,” said WVU guard Chase Harler, whose 3-pointer with 9:19 left helped sparked the Mountaineers’ comeback bid. “They did a decent job of getting us to make plays we usually don’t make. You turn the ball over 22 times, you’re not going to win a lot of games.”
More of it was the overall quickness of the Red Storm players, who never gave up on a play or loose ball.
“They were definitely fast with their pressure and they gang-guarded,” said Miles McBride, who had a last-gasp shot at the buzzer that fell off to the side. “We threw it inside and it looked like they had all 10 eyes on Derek (Culver) and Oscar (Tshiebwe). They crashed hard. They kicked it out to us, but we didn’t make shots.
“We couldn’t get a rhythm going with someone constantly in our face. Every move we made, someone was right there.”
And with all of that, WVU (7-1) still found a way to get back into the game.
Harler’s three got it going. Then, Sean McNeil busted a 3-pointer from the corner and McBride scored in transition.
Taz Sherman added another three and then McNeil’s final three with 1:14 left tied the game at 68.
“We just dug ourselves too big of a hole early,” said McNeil, who finished with 13 points and went 4 of 7 from outside the arc. “We made a run and fought back.”
The final 1:14 saw both teams miss an opportunity to take a lead.
For the Mountaineers, Sherman missed a shot from the side with 27 seconds left that Culver grabbed.
But, before Culver could even turn his head, St. John’s guard Rasheem Dunn snuck in from the side and stole the ball away.
It was the 22nd and final turnover of the day that ultimately proved to be the most costly.
“I just wanted to get the win,” said Dunn, who was fouled after the steal and made two free throws to win the game with five seconds remaining. “We played balls to the walls and I was doing everything in my power to get the win.”
Culver still had one of his best games this season for WVU, finishing with 12 points and 18 rebounds for his second straight double-double, but WVU couldn’t keep the Red Storm off the offensive glass (17 offensive boards) and the Mountaineers were a putrid 5 of 12 from the foul line.
“They moved together as a team,” Culver said. “They made it difficult for us to get the ball into the low post. We just need to go back to the drawing board and get this thing figured out.”