MORGANTOWN, W. Va. — When push came to shove and tough decisions had to be made Sunday, Bob Huggins felt the best choice was to keep Gabe Osabuohien on the floor and Derek Culver on the bench.
In the end, maybe that’s just how strange Syracuse’s 75-72 victory in the second round of the NCAA tournament over the third-seeded Mountaineers at Banker’s Life Fieldhouse actually was.
Culver is the Mountaineers’ all-Big 12 first-teamer and big gun down low and he was holstered to the bench for 14 minutes in the second half.
He wasn’t in foul trouble. He wasn’t hurt.
“I was just trying to win, man,” Huggins said afterward.
At first glance, you wonder about that, because there has rarely been a game where WVU’s odds of winning were better with the 6-foot-10 Culver on the bench.
This just happened to be that one-in-a-hundred moment.
You can go back and forth and disagree with Huggins’ assessment of the situation — all fans have that right — but there is no doubting Syracuse’s defensive strategy, no matter what, was to never let Culver build any type of momentum in this game.
“They were double-teaming Derek and our timing of getting the ball inside to him wasn’t very good,” Huggins said.
Double-teaming may have been an understatement.
Every time Culver touched the ball near the rim, Syracuse defenders Marek Dolezaj, Quincy Guerrier and Alan Griffin were on him like a pack of coyotes on a lame deer.
“Our defense was big time in the first half today and kept us in the lead,” Syracuse guard Buddy Boeheim said.
So, Huggins was faced with a choice.
Do you force-feed a tough situation and keep Culver on the floor or make an adjustment?
Huggins decided to adjust and went with Osabuohien.
“We were struggling to guard (Syracuse) and Gabe is our best inside defender,” Huggins said. “Gabe does a much better job defensively and Gabe pretty much rebounds it as well as Derek has, if you go by minutes played, anyway.”
Now, there are trade-offs with that decision.
Dolezaj basically played the last 12 minutes of the game with four fouls.
With Culver on the floor, that likely would not have happened and Dolezaj probably would have fouled out.
Osabuohien doesn’t give WVU that low-post scoring threat that Culver does, but what Osabuohien’s presence on the floor did give WVU was a fighting chance.
Syracuse wasn’t going to mob Osabuohien when he caught the ball around the foul line or in the paint, so he had opportunities to move the ball that Culver didn’t have.
Osabuohien very much had a great Gabe-Osabuohien type of game.
He finished with nine rebounds and three assists and drew a couple of offensive fouls.
When Emmitt Matthews Jr. picked up a dunk midway through the second half — one of the few easy buckets WVU got in the final 20 minutes — it came from Osabuohien deflecting a Syracuse pass toward Deuce McBride, who threw it out to Matthews for the slam.
Yes, Osabuohien also missed two big free throws that could have put the Mountaineers back in the lead with 8:21 remaining, but those misses did not make the difference between winning and losing this game.
“I think it’s hard for most people to appreciate everything Gabe does,” Huggins said. “He keeps balls alive for us. He stops penetration. We’ve had a hard time all year in staying in front of our man. He’s the key to our defense. He’s the last resort. We’re not near as good a basketball team without him.”
This wasn’t about what Culver did wrong. Nothing like that at all.
Huggins just made a decision. It’s really just that simple.
Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim thought Huggins made the right one.
“I thought the first half, we played the best defense we’ve played all year long,”he said. “We wanted to stay back on Culver when he tried to drive and to draw the charge, but getting him out of the game probably hurt us, because they were much better with their smaller lineup. They made it hard to defend them. Then they got on the boards big time in the second half.”