By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
It was a familiar feeling, the kind you get when you are driving down the highway and there’s a car in front of you but somehow, no matter what you do, you can’t get past.
You try to go out and around him but he picks up just enough speed not to let you by.
You slide into that passing lane only to see someone coming at you.
It is frustrating, so you wait and wait in hopes he will turn off, but there he is, going 60 in that 65 mph zone until you try to zip by, only to have him step on the gas again just enough to keep you where you are.
That was a feeling the West Virginia Mountaineers came to know in Sunday’s 77-70 loss to Oklahoma in the third-place game of the Old Spice Classic in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
The Sooners, whom they will come to know quite well this year with at least three meetings counting Big 12 regular season play and who knows how many times in the postseason, cut in front of them midway through the first half and the rest of the time it was as if the Mountaineers were traveling up a West Virginian mountain behind a fully loaded coal truck.
They fell 12 behind, then cut it to one, only to have Oklahoma spurt away again, taking the lead back to seven points, only to have the Mountaineers pull up alongside again, 42-41, then at 51-50, but WVU could not get by.
Each time they would miss a shot, make a mistake, turn the ball over, get backdoored for a Sooner dunk.
The sense was that sooner or later the Mountaineers would get hot, make a basket or two, force a turnover, make a stop, but it didn’t happen.
They drew even at 62-all, but hit a bump in the road that saw Oklahoma score seven of the next nine points.
They would look around and see things they couldn’t believe. They were bigger, stronger than Oklahoma, yet the Sooners had twice as many points in the paint than they had at that point.
How could that be? Yet there it was.
Still they hung in there, down six with 1:54 to play when they threw the ball into Deniz Kilicli down low.
Here is what the driver, Coach Bob Huggins, saw at that moment.
“Let’s be honest — it’s a close game. We still got a chance,” he said. “We throw it in to Deniz who is 6-10, I believe, and he gets fouled. If he makes his two free throws it’s a four-point game.”
But there’s a conversation about to ensue; the officials have seen something else other than the foul on Kilicli. Oklahoma’s Andrew Fitzgerald has taken a shot to his chin while fouling Kilicli.
On replay it didn’t look flagrant, but it didn’t have to.
“The rule is if you hit anybody with your elbow — not even your elbow, just your arm — then it’s a flagrant foul,” Huggins said. “Deniz got fouled, his arm came up and it catches the guy under the chin. I’m not sure it’s a good rule.”
It certainly wasn’t a good rule for Huggins, because his guy got fouled, made only one of two, but now Fitzgerald gets to shoot two free throws. Since he’s been hurt, however, they get to pick his replacement and Steven Pledger goes into the game, makes two of two, then the ball goes over to Oklahoma and they score again.
“We’re out of the game,” Huggins said.
Now it’s true that West Virginia didn’t lose its third game in four outings because of that one play. They played exactly as they have played for most of the year, which is inconsistently and badly.
Take Kilicli, who had no points in the first half and 12 in the second. Take Aaric Murray, the other big man expected to dominate inside. He was in foul trouble again and played only 22 minutes, during which he got 10 rebounds.
Take Jabarie Hinds, who again shot poorly, making but 3 of 10 and making just enough mistakes to cost the team, mistakes like failing to pull back when he was out of control on a 1-on-2 fast break, odds that are no good.
In truth, the statistics in this game say a lot, WVU trying to win while shooting 36.2 percent while allowing the other team to shoot 47.4 percent.
And then there’s the matter of finishing off plays, which is why WVU had only eight assists in this game and why they have 44 assists and 51 turnovers for the season.
They haven’t shot well, they haven’t passed well, they haven’t rebounded well and they haven’t defended well.
They are, it seems, caught up in the slow lane.
Email Bob Hertzel at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.