Second-half turnaround might have saved WVU’s season

It wouldn’t be hyperbole to assert that – for much of the first half of No. 17 West Virginia’s game against Oklahoma State on Tuesday night – the Mountaineers season appeared on the brink of collapse. For most of the first half, West Virginia was trailed – at home – by double digits to perhaps the worst team in the Big 12. The Mountaineers three-game losing streak looked primed to become four.

But just as their season looked to be in an unstoppable tailspin, it wasn’t.

Jermaine Haley hit a fall-away 3-pointer from the left corner just before the first-half buzzer sounded. Haley’s shot pulled the WVU deficit to five, 33-28, as the teams went into the locker room.

Out of the locker room, it was a different game. West Virginia completely dominated the second half and finished with a 65-47 victory.

West Virginia (19-7, 7-6 Big 12) coach Bob Huggins shuffled his starting lineup against the Cowboys (13-13, 3-10). Huggins was looking for an offensive spark for a team who came into Tuesday night burdened with a three-game losing streak and lost four of its last six.

Huggins inserted Taz Sherman and freshman Miles McBride into the starting lineup in place of Jordan McCabe and Derek Culver. Sherman scored 20 points in Saturday’s loss at Baylor, so maybe Huggins was hoping Sherman would be a hot shooter early.

He was not.

Sherman and McBride started 0-for-7 from the field in their new roles as starters. McBride finished with 11 points and Sherman had nine, but the two combined to shoot just 8 for 24 (33 percent) for the game.

It wasn’t the offensive spark Huggins was hoping for.

But Sherman and McBride weren’t alone in their first-half struggles. The ugly start was a team effort. The Mountaineers couldn’t score. They coupled that with some awful defensive lapses.

For the first 15 minutes of the game, the Mountaineers had the look of a team that had checked out on their season.

Then they didn’t.

Haley’s buzzer beater might have given his team a boost, but it was a group effort that righted this sinking ship.

Sean McNeil, who had become a non-entity during and after missing time with illness, scored 11 points on 3 of 4 shooting. Oscar Tshiebwe pulled down 15 rebounds and Culver added 10.

The win ends the Mountaineers losing streak. It doesn’t solve their problems.

WVU shot better (23-for-54, 42.6 percent) that it had during the losing streak. But the Mountaineers were still bad from the free-throw line (17-for-26, 65.4 percent) and atrocious from the 3-point line (2-for-16, 12.5 percent).

Those are issues that, with just weeks left in the season, aren’t likely to improve much. All the starting lineup deck shuffling doesn’t change the fact that this is the hand Huggins has been dealt. We’ll see how he plays these cards the rest of the way.

Tuesday night was as close to a must win game as this team will have. The Mountaineers couldn’t afford to lose at home to Oklahoma State, one of the bottom dwellers in the Big 12. They needed to win. And they did.

At least for one night, that’s enough.