Gonzaga has been coronated as the best team in college basketball this season by everyone with a pulse. After all, they beat Kansas handily in their opener and followed that up with a 23-point shellacking of Bruce Pearl’s upstart Auburn team. Their depth, talent and their graceful offensive flow have been on display and quite honestly, the accolades have been well deserved.
Bob Huggins’ added Gonzaga to the schedule just a week ago when Rick Barnes and his Tennessee Volunteer team had a COVID outbreak and had to back out of their early season contest.
For West Virginia to stand a chance on Wednesday night in the Jimmy V Classic, the Mountaineers had to add their ugly chaos to the Bulldog beauty.
In most respects they were successful.
West Virginia came out unafraid, dominating the glass and making all of the hustle plays. Despite making just one of their first eight shots form the floor the Mountaineers were up 12-6 on a Miles McBride trey on the play after the first media timeout.
The Mountaineers imposed their gritty, board-gobbling will on the Bulldogs throughout the first half. They even held Bulldog center Andrew Timme to 1-8 shooting form the floor, their pressure causing him to be noticeably frustrated and miss a couple of easy layups in the first stanza.
West Virginia would twice lead by nine in the last five minutes of the first half, continually shortening the Bulldogs chain with their pressure defense and aggressive work on the blocks. WVU would go into the half with a 39-35 lead.
Everyone knew at halftime Gonzaga is a team that would not go down without a fight and held at least one inevitable run in them in the second half to win, the Mountaineers would have to keep the Bulldog scoring in check.
Andrew Nembhard would prove to be a major problem for the Mountaineers. He would finish with 19 points, six assists and five rebounds, making key buckets, leading the Gonzaga charge in the second half.
Gonzaga came out with a different energy, using backdoor cuts to counter WVU’s overplaying defense.
The largest lead for either team would be only four points until 4:17 remained on the clock.
At 4:17 Taz Sherman made a great move to the basket, left his feet to shoot and caught Timme on the block, flailing, with his feet crossed up, sliding under Sherman, making a poor attempt at taking a charge. The refs would not agree, calling Taz Sherman for an offensive foul as Jay Bilas’ echoed “That was a terrible call” throughout the empty Indianapolis arena.
That play turned the tide of the game in Gonzaga’s favor. The following play, instead of Sherman shooting free throws, Corey Ksipert made a thee pointer from the wing to put Gonzaga up seven and West Virginia would not be able to regain the lead.
Gonzaga would go on to close out the game 87-82.
Derek Culver finished the game with 18 points and 15 rebounds to lead the Mountaineers.
While this was a loss, this loss is one that contains many positives. The 20-21 edition of the Mountaineers knows they can play with the best of the best in college basketball. If they had made a few less mistakes this game could have ended differently.
When March comes, the resumes are examined and the players and coaches look back at this game, everyone will know that West Virginia is good enough to contend for a national title.
West Virginia returns to action on Sunday at 4:30 in the Big East-Big 12 Battle against familiar Big East foe, Georgetown.