Out on the road and in its Big 12 Conference opener, West Virginia was already up against it in facing a Texas team that thrives on handcuffing opponents defensively.
Compounding things, the Mountaineers showed up shorthanded.
WVU was without leading scorer Taz Sherman, defensive ace Gabe Osabuohien and reserve guard Kobe Johnson, who were all ruled out due to COVID-19 protocols. Despite a valiant effort early, the absences and a Longhorns defense that lived up to its billing were far too much to overcome in the Mountaineers’ 74-59 setback on Saturday afternoon in Austin, Texas.
No. 17 Texas (11-2) entered the game sporting the country’s stingiest scoring defense, allowing just 51.3 points per game. Sherman, meanwhile, is ranked 13th in the nation in scoring at 20.9 points per contest. Without its biggest offensive weapon, WVU just didn’t have enough breaking through the Texas stone wall.
“Obviously when you play without the best player in the league, it’s going to affect you — [Sherman has] been the best player in the league so far,” WVU coach Bob Huggins said. “And then two other guys who contribute a lot to us, it’s not going to be easy. But that being said, you can’t turn it over 20 times, particularly when they’ve been told since we started official practice that what’s going to beat us is ourselves turning the ball over.”
Indeed, while many of the numbers looked fairly even by the end, a couple of key statistics told the story on Saturday. Those 20 turnovers hindered the Mountaineers (11-2) throughout and especially early as Texas pulled away.
The Longhorns did most of their damage over the last 10 minutes of the first half. A bucket by WVU’s Isaiah Cottrell tied the game at 14 with 10:10 remaining in the opening 20 minutes, but from there, Texas outscored West Virginia 25-6 to take a 39-20 lead into the break.
That advantage would grow to as many as 28 points at 55-27 with 13:03 to go, but despite the relatively lopsided score, the Mountaineers were much better as the second half wore on. By game’s end, WVU had evened most things up including shooting percentage (Texas 42.4%, WVU 42.3%) and rebounds (both teams had 33).
With Sherman out, Texas was able to hone in on guard Sean McNeil, the Mountaineers’ second-leading scorer. McNeil scored 12 points, third among WVU scorers behind 18 from sophomore forward Jalen Bridges and 14 from point guard Malik Curry, but found space enough to attempt just two 3-pointers, making them both.
Afterward, Huggins spoke of the difficulties McNeil faced out of Texas’ defense.
“They gang up on him,” Huggins said. “It makes it more difficult, much more difficult. They’re fond of saying in the NBA, ‘Robin and Batman.’ Batman’s not any good without Robin and Robin stinks without Batman. They get so much more attention, particularly when you’re playing on a team with a bunch of guys that struggle to make shots.”
For Bridges, it was a step in the right direction as he matched his season high in scoring set in a win over Pitt on Nov. 11. But, in the 10 games after, Bridges scored in double figures just once in an 11-point effort in a loss to Marquette.
Marcus Carr led the Longhorns with 20 points with Courtney Ramey pitching in 15 (13 in the first half) and Andrew Jones adding 14.
West Virginia was originally slated to play at TCU on Monday, but the game was postponed due to COVID issues within the Horned Frogs’ program. WVU will now have a week off before hosting Kansas State at 2 p.m. on Jan. 8.
WVU starting point guard Kedrian Johnson injured his ankle in the second half. Huggins had no immediate update after the game, saying only that he was hopeful that Johnson would be available by Saturday’s game with the Wildcats. Huggins also didn’t have an answer on whether or not Sherman, Osabuohien or Kobe Johnson would be available by next week.