Baylor’s latest opportunity to turn around a season headed in the wrong direction disappeared Tuesday with a 66-64 loss to West Virginia in the Ferrell Center.
Mountaineers guard Juwan Staten hit a reverse layup with 3.1 seconds remaining, and a 3-point shot by Baylor’s Kenny Chery on the ensuing possession caromed off the backboard and through the net. But Chery did not release the ball before time expired.
No points. No glory. No end to the Bears’ losing streak, which now stands at five consecutive games.
Even more daunting: Baylor (13-7, 1-6 Big 12), ranked No. 7 nationally just three weeks ago, faces the unenviable task of trying to get its season back on track in consecutive games against two top 10 opponents: Saturday at No. 8 Oklahoma State and Feb. 4 at home against No. 6 Kansas.
That is why Tuesday’s loss in front of an announced crowd of 5,529 in a half-filled arena casts significant doubt about the postseason possibilities for a team that has regressed since posting a 12-1 mark in nonconference play.
“The frustration is definitely there,” said Baylor forward Rico Gathers, who finished with eight points and a game-high 12 rebounds. “But the main thing after a game like this is to look at our fight to try to win. … I really can’t complain about my team’s effort.”
Baylor can point to a huge turnover disparity, however. The Bears committed 17, which West Virginia converted into 18 points. Baylor, meanwhile, failed to turn any of West Virginia’s six turnovers into points. The 18-0 disparity caused Baylor to play from behind throughout.
Despite the close finish, West Virginia (12-9, 4-4) never trailed after taking a 10-9 lead with 14:34 left in the first half. Baylor coach Scott Drew praised his team’s effort but said the Bears must get more scoring punch from their inside tandem of Cory Jefferson and Isaiah Austin, two players who bypassed early entry in the 2013 NBA Draft to try to help this team get back to the NCAA Tournament. Both players finished with six points and five rebounds Tuesday.
“I’m disappointed that we haven’t had some of the vets step up and play better because I know they’re capable of it and want to play better,” Drew said. “But that’s hasn’t happened. … You’d like to get double-doubles from the front line.”
Instead, it was West Virginia who got double-figure scoring nights from Staten, who finished with a game-high 15 points, and three of his teammates. The Mountaineers won despite being outrebounded 37-27 because of the turnovers forced by their trapping defense and their mental toughness whenever Baylor made runs in the final 34 minutes.
After losing a 9-8 lead in the first half, Baylor rallied to tie the score on four occasions but never took the lead. The last time came when Gathers made one of two free throws with 36.5 seconds remaining.
Staten responded with his driving layup on the next possession to beat the shot clock and the Bears. Baylor guard Brady Heslip said the team must keep a positive attitude despite its slump and crank up the work ethic.
“We’re going to work harder than we’ve been working because, as hard as we’re working now, it’s not working for us.” Heslip said. “It’s really frustrating. So we’ve got to crank it up a notch.”
Drew vowed to “keep plugging away” until the Bears get things turned around. But after dropping their third consecutive home game to a Big 12 foe, the upcoming schedule (three consecutive ranked opponents) suggests Baylor could be 1-9 in league play before facing TCU (9-10, 0-7) on Feb. 12 in Fort Worth.
“They always say it’s a lot worse to be rich and then poor than never rich,” Drew said. “Starting out the way we did and then falling off, it’s been tough. But that’s life and it’s a great lesson. We won’t quit and we’ll make sure the guys stay positive.”