MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – West Virginia’s young basketball team has been looking for a big performance to get over the hump. Well, unfortunately the search continues after the Mountaineers fell 80-76 to 20th-ranked Gonzaga Tuesday night at the WVU Coliseum in a game they easily could have won.
West Virginia (6-4) had a 10-point lead with 16:08 left in the second half and led by eight, 64-56, with 8:22 to go, but Kevin Pangos hit three big 3s down the stretch, including back-to-back triples inside of three minutes remaining to help give the Bulldogs their ninth victory of the year.
“It was a heck of a game,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Few. “I think both teams fought and played with a lot of emotion. West Virginia is a very much-improved team, especially the way they shoot the ball.”
The Mountaineers, as was the case in close losses to Virginia Tech and Wisconsin earlier this year, were unable to make the key plays down the stretch in crunch time. Tonight, West Virginia hit a dry spell midway through the second half after it had opened up the only double-digit lead of the game.
“We’re going to be alright – we’re going to be good,” said West Virginia coach Bob Huggins. “We just can’t keep losing games that are winnable, and this was a winnable game.”
scored 18 of his game-high 23 points in the first half, but the Zags chose to keep the ball out of his hands and take their chances with other people shooting the basketball in the second half.
The strategy proved effective as the rest of the team could only make 17 of its 52 shot attempts from the floor for 32.7 percent. Overall, West Virginia shot 37.3 percent, including 33.3 percent from 3, hitting 9 of 27.
Six of those nine 3s came in the first half, however.
“We had shots,” said Huggins. “They just didn’t go in. When you’re standing there wide open you’ve got to step in and make some shots.”
Gonzaga’s 7-foot-1 center Przemek Karnowski finished the game with 19 points and 13 rebounds; Pangos scored 18 and Gary Bell Jr. added 15.
Karnowski used his substantial height advantage to go 6 of 11 from close range while also hitting 7 of 8 from the line after coming into the game as a 45-percent free throw shooter for the season.
“If you don’t want somebody to score you don’t let them catch the ball,” said Huggins. “He’s a big guy and we tried to force him to his right hand and he made three of them with his right hand, which makes him a whole lot harder to guard.”
Gonzaga (9-1), ranked first in the country in field goal shooting at 54.9 percent, hit only 27 of 61 tonight for 44.3 percent, but in the second half the Bulldogs shot at a 51.9-percent clip.
“I thought the key to the game was they just beat us back down the floor a few times,” said Huggins. “We get up by 10 and they run it right down our throats. That’s what they do.”
The Zags had a 43-36 advantage on the glass and made 19 of 23 from the free throw line.
Tonight’s loss snapped a five-game home winning streak against nationally ranked non-conference opponents dating back to a 2004 victory against 20th-ranked George Washington.
The Mountaineers also knocked off second-ranked UCLA in 2007, 15th-rated Ole Miss in 2009, 21st-rated Ohio State in 2010 and eighth-rated Purdue in 2011 before tonight’s loss to the 20th-rated Zags.
Tonight’s triumph was the third straight for Gonzaga over West Virginia dating back to a 2012 NCAA tournament game in Pittsburgh when the Zags blew out the Mountaineers 77-54. Last year in Spokane, Gonzaga opened the 2013 season with an 84-50 victory over WVU.
A season-high 9,350 showed up for tonight’s game.
“I want to thank the students,” said Huggins. “The students were absolutely phenomenal. When you get 3,500 students that’s doing something. I’m very proud and very indebted to them, and hopefully we can keep that going.”
West Virginia returns to action this Saturday in Charleston against Marshall. The game will tip off at 7:30 p.m. and will be televised statewide on the Capital Classic Network.