UConn misfires at end, falls at West Virginia

Photo of David Borges
UConn guard R.J. Cole, center, is defended by West Virginia guards Taz Sherman, left, and Kedrian Johnson (0) during the first half in Morgantown, W.Va., on Wednesday. The Mountaineers won 56-53.

UConn guard R.J. Cole, center, is defended by West Virginia guards Taz Sherman, left, and Kedrian Johnson (0) during the first half in Morgantown, W.Va., on Wednesday. The Mountaineers won 56-53.

Kathleen Batten / Associated Press

MORGANTOWN, W.V. — West Virginia’s mascot fired off a musket for the first shot of the night. R.J. Cole tossed up an off-balance 3-pointer for the last.

In between, there weren’t a whole lot of good shots tossed up by either UConn or West Virginia on Wednesday — a veritable cacophony of clang from both the 3-point and free-throw lines.

Ultimately, the Mountaineers made a few more and held off No. 15 UConn for a 56-53 victory at WVU Coliseum.

West Virginia (8-1) shot a miserable 11-for-25 from the foul line, but ultimately won the game by hitting 5 of 8 from the stripe — as well as corralling a key rebound off one of those misses — over the final three minutes.

The Mountaineers made just one field goal over the final 6:47 of play. UConn (8-2) made just one over the final 41/2 minutes — an Isaiah Whaley putback with 7.4 seconds left that pulled the Huskies to within two.

Sean McNeil was fouled, missed his first but made his second to give WVU a three-point edge. Cole inbounded to Whaley, got the ball back and dribbled up the floor to get a good look at the buzzer. But his 3-pointer — like 18 of the 21 the Huskies shot on Wednesday — was off the mark.

“Tough loss, hard-fought game, real physical game,” UConn coach Dan Hurley said. “Both teams played incredibly hard, which made the game really ugly. But, based on both of our identities, you knew it was going to be a low-scoring game.”

West Virginia went ahead for good, 52-51, when Pauly Paulicap hit one of two free throws with 3:06 left. The Mountaineers reverted to a 1-3-1 zone on defense, and the teams combined for a shot-clock violation, missed 3-pointers and a missed dunk over the next 90 seconds before Hurley called a timeout with 1:25 remaining.

Out of the timeout, UConn, which had struggled in its halfcourt offense most of the night, got a bunch of 3-point looks that were off the mark, grabbed the offensive rebounds but couldn’t convert. Ultimately, Tyler Polley wound up with the ball in the corner off a deflection and lofted a 3-point attempt a bit too early in the shot clock.

“Situational basketball there,” Hurley said. “I thought it was so frantic a situation, and he kind of took a panic shot there. Against the 1-3-1, we’re trying to get into the gaps. They went to that late. We got a couple of good looks, a couple of tips — wild sequence.”

“We got good looks, the shots just didn’t fall,” added Whaley. “We played hard. This time now, playing hard’s just not good enough. It’s about winning.”

West Virginia’s Taz Sherman hit the first of two free throws with 21.2 seconds left but missed the second. However, Gabe Osabuohien grabbed the offensive board and kicked it out to McNeil, who was fouled and hit both free throws for a four-point lead.

“Free-throw rebound killer there,” Hurley said. “Michigan State game, as well. Not handling ourselves with free-throw rebounding situations has hurt us in two close losses.”

UConn was a mere 6-for-11 from the foul line to go with its 3-for-21 3-point shooting.

“And probably the 18 we missed, eight, nine or 10 of those were pretty good looks,” Hurley said. “Make a couple of them, you walk out with a win. Tough loss. Thought we fought hard, but we come out with a loss.”

WVU hit just 6 of 16 from distance.

Whaley led the Huskies with 15 points, Cole, the point guard, added 14 points and six rebounds, and Andre Jackson netted 10. Akok Akok pulled down 10 rebounds.

Cole was booed every time he touched the ball by the partisan crowd of 12,045.

“I’m just out there playing basketball,” Cole said. “I had to tune that out and worry about what’s going on with me and my teammates.”

Sherman and McNeil, who entered the game averaging a combined 33 points per game, combined for 39 on Wednesday.

McNeil, who was listed as “day-to-day” by coach Bob Huggins on Tuesday, was in the starting lineup and scored the first four and 10 of the first 13 points for the Mountaineers.

West Virginia held a 32-29 lead at the break after a back-and-forth first half that featured 10 lead changes and three ties. The Huskies brought defensive intensity, but WVU hit some tough shots — nearly all of them by Sherman and McNeil, who combined for all but six of the team’s first-half points.

UConn also misfired on 11 of its 12 3-point attempts in the first 20 minutes.

Polley missed all four of his 3-point attempts in the game and finished with just four points. Freshman Jordan Hawkins was 0-for-7 from the floor.

“We worry with this group, the way we’re currently constituted, where to go with the ball on offense,” Hurley said.

UConn, of course, is without two of its top three leading scorers, sophomore center Adama Sanogo and senior wing Tyrese Martin. Hurley has hinted Martin could be ready for the Huskies’ Big East-opener on Dec. 18, and perhaps Sanogo at or around the same time.

“You kind of think about it as last year, in the sense that when we lost (leading scorer James Bouknight), everybody had to step up,” Cole said. “Losing two key pieces, Adama and Tyrese, everybody’s got to step up. Now, when they come back, everybody’s got better in these, what, three games or so? And that will help the team overall.”

RIM RATTLINGS

 It was a tough night for Hawkins, in his first true road start before a hostile crowd. The 6-foot-5 guard was not only missed all seven of his shots but turned the ball over four times. Whaley said Hawkins was despondent about his performance after the game.

“He wants to be perfect, and nobody’s perfect,” Whaley noted. “We’re trying to keep him positive and keep his head up.”

 UConn fell to 16-7 all-time against the Mountaineers. Its last win was in overtime in the 2012 Big East tournament.

 Huggins now has 908 career wins, good for fourth on the all-time list. He needs 12 more to tie Jim Calhoun for third. Huggins is now 4-6 against UConn — 4-5 at WVU and 0-1 at Cincinnati.

david.borges@hearstmediact.com