MORGANTOWN, W. Va. - For most of the way, Villanova looked about as together as it has this season.
That's the good news.
Trouble is, it still wasn't enough last night, against a West Virginia team that has two more seniors and four more freshmen than the Wildcats, who have zero and five, respectively. But with 4 minutes remaining in their Big East opener, they were down by only three points, in a place where they'd only won once in their previous five trips. And the WVU Coliseum that Jerry West pretty much erected is still hardly a visitor-friendly environment, even when the student body is away on holiday hiatus.
The Wildcats (7-6) simply made too many mistakes down the stretch, and the Mountaineers (10-3) didn't. And the result was an 83-69 loss that wasn't as thorough as the numbers would suggest. Then again, you don't get any bonus points for staying there until the end.
The Wildcats will go to No. 10 Marquette on Sunday for their next lesson, the third time in 4 years that they're celebrating New Year's in Milwaukee.
"The Big East isn't supposed to be easy," said point guard Maalik Wayns, one of three junior starters who accounted for 53 of their points. "We had a chance, and we couldn't get it done. But we're getting better. That's what we have to keep doing. The young guys gave us something, in different ways. We couldn't get stops when we had to.
"As the leader, it's my job to find ways to pull it out. Turnovers killed us. I take that on myself. I have the ball in my hands. I don't take to losing well. I've never lost at nothing in my life. It's something we're going through. It's not going to get any easier. In the Big East, every night's like this. Notre Dame beat Pitt [on Tuesday], St. John's beat Providence. It can go any way.
"We showed we can play with those guys. They made some big-time plays when they had to. That's experience. We've been in those games and won them. But we had upperclassmen."
And at some point, if Villanova is going to become a better team than it is now, the juniors must play more like seniors and at least a few of the freshmen need to stop looking the part.
"It's a fine line," coach Jay Wright said. "You want to win. You want them to learn. You don't want them to lose their confidence. So you try to show them the positives from a game like this, but also tell them what we did wrong.
"We did a lot of good things. We defended well in the halfcourt. We did a good job on [Kevin] Jones, which we were concerned about. We rebounded well, especially against those guys. But we turned it over 15 times. They got 24 points off that. And some of those came in really critical spots. And we just didn't have enough answers for [Darryl] Bryant. He was huge. But that's probably as well as we've played on the road. We played really well at home against American. This is different."
Jones, who leads the conference in scoring and rebounding, finished with 13 (only two after intermission) and seven, respectively. But Bryant, WVU's other senior, had 21 of his career-high 34 points in the second half, including the three that made it a six-point game with 3 1/2 minutes left and another jumper from inside the arc about 65 seconds later. A freshman, Gary Browne, had the other two field goals in the decisive, 9-0 spurt. Bryant, who goes by "Truck," shot 12-for-23 with four treys.
"I took him out one time, because he didn't run what we wanted him to run after a timeout," said Bob Huggins, who got his 701st career victory. "After Villanova scored an easy take-in layup, I put him right back in. There's a lot more trust. They know when they make mistakes. Obviously, I'm not going to allow them to make the same ones."
The Wildcats, who trailed much of the first half, led by three with 13 minutes to go. And they tied it at 5:47. But they managed only one more basket until their final possession.
Wayns and Dominic Cheek scored 20 each, with Wayns taking four more shots. He also had six of those turnovers, before fouling out late. Mouphtaou Yarou added 13, to go with eight rebounds. But he's still bothered by a sprained right ankle he injured nearly 2 weeks ago, so Wright said Yarou probably will have an MRI exam just to make sure everything's indeed OK.
One of the first-year guys, Markus Kennedy, had seven boards in 15 minutes off the bench. The Wildcats had 10 more second-chance points.
"We let it slip away," said Cheek, the only Wildcat to make a three (3-for-7, to his teammates' 0-for-7). "We just did some things you can't do. We have to cut out the dumb mistakes. I think we played a good game as a team. We've got a lot of new players, with new roles. It's their first Big East game. It's their first taste. Every game's going to be tough. But now they know what to expect. We've got to finish stronger. If you think about it, in most of our games it's been that way."
Which obviously helps explain their record.
And so it's on to cheese country.
"I don't want them to lose their spirit or enthusiasm," Wright said. "A lot of the mistakes came when they were trying to make plays. You want to see that. No matter what you tell them, they had to go through this for the first time. Believe it or not, they'll be more confident the next time. If this group had been together for 2 years and played like that, I would have really gotten after them. But for us, it's an experience."