SAN JOSE, Calif. - So, for the second time since 2015, West Virginia’s postseason run ends in the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16.
Three seasons ago, in Cleveland, Ohio, the Mountaineers were unceremoniously dumped from the tournament by a vastly superior Kentucky team that was better than West Virginia at every position.
The Mountaineers were never in it from start to finish.
But Thursday night’s West regional semifinal loss to top-seeded Gonzaga was far different. The two teams slugged it out to a first-half draw, and then after the Bulldogs took an eight-point lead with 14 minutes to go in the game, West Virginia fought back to tie it five minutes later, eventually taking the lead, 58-55, on Jevon Carter
’s 3 with 1:47 remaining.
Here the Mountaineers hit a stone wall.
Nigel Goss-Williams, dribbling beyond the top of the key with his back to the basket, was mysteriously fouled by Tarik Phillip
, sending Goss-Williams to the free throw line where he made both.
Then, Daxter Miles Jr.
was unable to get his two free throws to go down. On Miles’ second miss Nathan Adrian
’s put-back attempt was blocked from behind by guard Josh Perkins, and the game completely flipped when Goss-Williams retrieved the ball, fired a pass to Jordan Mathews hanging out in the far corner where he banged in a 3 with 59 seconds left.
A three-point Mountaineer lead became a two-point deficit in a matter of 48 seconds and only a couple of possessions.
The next 59 ticks of the clock saw Gonzaga completely lock down Carter, West Virginia’s only scoring threat on Thursday night.
Instead of driving to the basket to try and extend the game, Carter tried a difficult, long 3 with 21 seconds left that Miles Jr. managed to rebound underneath the basket, where he passed the ball back out to Carter in the back court.
Again, Carter tried another 3 with 16 seconds left, and again, it was off the mark. This time, Adrian hauled in the rebound and got it back to Carter for one more chance to tie the game.
But Gonzaga’s length on the perimeter made it impossible for Carter to get off another game-tying shot. The horn sounded with the basketball still in Carter’s hands.
Gonzaga, a No. 1 seed in the tournament - and for a good portion of the year the No. 1-ranked team in the country, had survived a very difficult basketball game. You could see it from their coaches and you could see it on the faces of their players walking off the court afterward.
“That was just an absolute war - a rock fight,” admitted Gonzaga coach Mark Few. “Those are two really, really tough teams, two really physical teams that laid it out there on the line. And there were big shots being made right and left and fortunately, we made the two big plays at the end.”
Gonzaga was held to season lows of 18 field goals and seven assists, and it was only the fourth time this season the 35-1 ‘Zags were tied at halftime.
“We pride ourselves on great ball movement but they really get in the passing lanes and don’t make any passes easy,” Williams-Goss said. “It’s tricky. No one plays like West Virginia. You have got to give them a lot of credit for the effort that they play with.”
It was an opportunity the Mountaineers failed to seize, for sure, but one that will not be forgotten by Carter, who returns for his senior season in 2018.
“That was a mistake on my behalf,” said Carter of his shot choices down the stretch. “I knew they had a lot of guys at the top. I should have drove it to the basket, but knowing it was a 3-point game I tried to go for the 3 since I’d been hitting. But if I’m in that position again I’ll take it to the basket.”
Chances are, with what the 13th-ranked Mountaineers have returning, Carter will likely be in this position once again next year.
“If you’ve ever played basketball then you always dream of going to the Final Four and winning the national championship and playing on that stage,” Carter said. “To know you were so close and you have everything you had, and to come up short, it hurts.
“But for me, I can’t let this game hurt me too much,” Carter added. “I got another crack at it so I’m going to get into the gym and work.”
West Virginia is losing quite a bit - a senior class consisting of Adrian, Phillip, Brandon Watkins
, Teyvon Myers
and James Long
who each made substantial contributions to a 28-win basketball team - but the immediate future remains very bright for Bob Huggins’ Mountaineers.
In Carter, Huggins will have a proven performer in the backcourt who has demonstrated an ability to take over games.
Since February 11, when he scored 19 points in a blowout home victory over Kansas State, Carter averaged 17.2 points, 6.4 rebounds and shot 49.3 percent from the floor over the remaining 13 games of the season.
Having Carter at the point - or off the ball a little more next year depending upon how much the younger guards in the program can develop or the newcomers can adjust - gives West Virginia a battle-hardened, proven scorer in the backcourt, a must in today’s college game.
Soon-to-be senior Daxter Miles Jr.
is another experienced backcourt performer. He was terrific against Oklahoma State, TCU, Iowa State and Notre Dame this season, and at 6-foot-3, is probably one of the better offensive rebounding guards in the country.
Junior-to-be Esa Ahmad
oozes with ability, his length, athleticism and outside shooting never more evident than when he singlehandedly took over the Kansas game on January 24, scoring a career-high 27 points against future lottery pick Josh Jackson.
Ahmad’s backup, Lamont West
, exhibited bursts of brilliance in games against Oklahoma State, Texas and Bucknell and appears to have an outstanding future.
Senior-to-be Elijah Macon
grew by leaps and bounds during the season and seemingly got better each time he stepped on the floor. Macon will give West Virginia a big next year quite capable of scoring in the paint when the Mountaineers need a basket close to the goal.
Athletic forward Sagaba Konate
is one of the most exciting young bigs the Mountaineers have had in their program in years, and his knowledge and understanding of the game will only accelerate once the coaches have a chance to work with him individually during the offseason.
Promising young forward Maciej Bender
, and youngsters Beetle Bolden, Chase Harler
and Logan Routt
, will also benefit greatly from the time spent with Huggins between now and November learning the game from one of college basketball’s most knowledgeable strategists.
It’s possible somebody from this group could emerge to take on a more important role next year as well.
Or, it could come from some of the players the Mountaineers signed last November. South Charleston point guard Brandon Knapper had a terrific season at Hargrave Military Academy with the credentials to possibly give West Virginia a big boost in the backcourt as early as next year.
High-scoring, 6-foot-5 guard Teddy Allen was recently named Nebraska’s Mr. Basketball at Boys Town High in Omaha, while 6-foot-8 JC wing Wesley Harris is reputed to possesses tremendous skills.
Perhaps WVU could get some immediate help from those guys, or 6-foot-7 wing D’Angelo Hunter from Louisville, Kentucky.
So, on the basis of what West Virginia has returning and what it is bringing in, the Mountaineers will likely be a preseason top 10 pick in 2018, and an even deeper run in the NCAA Tournament could be in the offing.
It will depend, of course, on how much the returning guys work on their games during the offseason, and how quickly the newcomers can adjust to playing in one of the most difficult conferences in the country.
Nevertheless, this trip to the Sweet 16 offers a completely different outlook for West Virginia basketball compared to the last one they made back in 2015.