The days of “Press Virginia” may be behind West Virginia men’s basketball, but escaping the West Virginia University Coliseum with a victory is no simple feat.
This is not new information to Texas, as the Longhorns — who have recorded just two wins in Morgantown under head coach Shaka Smart, were painfully reminded how difficult the road trip can be in Monday evening’s 97-59 loss to the No. 14 Mountaineers. The game was Texas’ worst loss of the Smart era.
While both teams were coming off difficult losses, only one seemed to have moved on. The Mountaineers put an uncharacteristic and lackluster performance against Kansas State behind them and turned their full attention to the Longhorns.
“When you have a group of five guys that will play for each other, that play for the name on the front of the jersey, you have a chance in a game like tonight,” Smart said in a postgame interview. “We didn’t have that tonight.”
Usually optimistic, Smart’s criticism was not unwarranted as Texas was completely unprepared for the storm about to hit it.
West Virginia’s blitz combination of suffocating defense, brutal physicality and steady shooting proved too much for the Longhorns from the opening tip.
The Mountaineers jumped out to a quick 12-4 lead in the first six minutes, setting a pesky defensive tone which would continue throughout the night. But Texas withstood the first wave of West Virginia’s bombardment, rallying with a 9-3 run of its own.
With the crowd temporarily silenced, it momentarily appeared as if Texas could overcome its early turnovers and match West Virginia’s frenetic pace.
Then the run began.
It began quietly — first with West Virginia junior forward Gabe Osabuohien hitting an inside shot, then with a handful of empty possessions from each team. Then came a no-holds-barred onslaught from the Mountaineers, wreaking havoc, forcing turnovers and dominating the rebounding battle.
The Mountaineers would go on a baffling 28-2 run, with the Longhorns turning the ball over and going cold.
“We didn’t respond well to their aggressiveness,” Smart said. “They had the better collective fight, energy, spirit.”
Smart said he told his team roughly eight minutes into the game that the looks on the players’ faces had to change, but they never did.
Making matters worse for Smart was the looming foul trouble his bigs couldn’t seem to stay out of. Junior center Jericho Sims, fresh off possibly the best performance of his career in a loss to Kansas, was no match for West Virginia’s inside combo of Big 12-leading rebounders Oscar Tshiebwe and Derek Culver.
Sims picked up three fouls before halftime, forcing Smart to bench the emerging star for crucial stretches of the first half. But with Texas trailing 45-20 at the break, it seemed to make little difference.
Sims would foul out less than six minutes into the second half, finishing with just three points and two rebounds.
The second half saw no improvement, as the Longhorns worsened an already-comatose performance by being outscored 52-39. West Virginia’s 45 points in the first half and 52 in the second half are Texas’ two worst halves of the season.
The worst news? Things don’t appear to ease up any time soon.
The Longhorns face off against a potent and tenacious LSU team Saturday in the seventh annual Big 12/SEC Challenge before traveling to TCU, where Smart’s Horns have typically struggled.
“We just didn’t have the collective togetherness we need to have,” Smart said. “(Tonight) has to be a turning point.”