Wasn't the win over Kentucky just a thing of beauty and a joy forever? I should have learned by now that this WVU team can battle anybody, overcome any obstacle. Early in the game, though, I doubted. I forgot the lesson I should have learned over a season of watching these magnificent Mountaineers. I saw the incomparable John Wall racing the ball up the court, saw Kentucky's fast break, saw DeMarcus Cousins appearing to be unstoppable near the basket, watched as WVU seemingly couldn't get in position for rebounds, saw a 6-2 early lead turn into a 13-6 deficit in the space of a little over three minutes, and I was worried. "Well," I thought for just a tiny, depressing moment, "it's been a nice run."
Then I remembered. And I watched. And the Mountaineers did their thing. Again.
For just a brief moment, I had forgotten the lesson this WVU team has gone over, time after time, patiently teaching us through the course of a season. This team is a combination of grit, determination, hard work, skill, athleticism, ability, teamwork, great coaching, and obvious confidence. Some of those terms are redundant, but some things should be mentioned over and over. This team is a joy to watch. Never, ever, count them out.
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John Calipari got outcoached on Saturday night. While WVU Coach Bob Huggins was pulling all the right levers and pushing all the right buttons, Kentucky inexplicably went away from what was working for them early -- getting the ball into the paint for Cousins and Patrick Patterson to put it away -- and insisted on trying to hit treys. Now, I hadn't watched Kentucky play prior to the tournament. Maybe the three-point shot has been a significant part of the Wildcats' game all season. But the rebounding edge that Kentucky obviously had early screamed for them to get the ball inside. Maybe that's what Coach Calipari was screaming, too.
Part of the reason they didn't, of course, was West Virginia's stifling and baffling 1-3-1 zone. Seeing that it was working, Coach Huggs stuck with it through most of the game. It confused and frustrated Kentucky's guards. Long WVU arms prevented passes to Cousins and Patterson. Even passing the ball around the perimeter was obviously more difficult than Kentucky was used to. WVU's defense was again the key to winning.
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On offense, WVU's active half-court game wore Kentucky down. This postgame comment by Coach Huggs seems particularly apropos:
"We're not as good in the first half as we are in the second because people get tired of chasing it.... They get tired of being screened. They get tired of chasing those curls. We got nothing at the rim in the first half. We got a lot of things at the rim in the second half."
By the end of the game, Kentucky looked tired and beaten down. Maybe that's attributable to the draining realization that the clock was ticking away and with it, their season was over. But just as the Wildcats had been frustrated on offense by WVU's 1-3-1 zone, I think they were in a state of disbelief that our methodical half-court offense had outscored their NBA-style break.
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Buzz-kill alert. You might want to skip this section. A very unsavory memory has been nagging at me. Maybe if I write it down it will go away. WVU stood two games from a national championship, we shared our optimistic hopes at tailgates on a cool, early December evening, and then we watched the Mountaineer football team fall to Pitt at home. Shoo! Go away, bad thought.
On the bright side, I'm absolutely certain the outcome that night will have no negative influence whatsoever on what happens this Saturday and next Monday in Indianapolis.
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Much happier memories: I've thought a lot about the WVU teams of Mike Gansey, Kevin Pittsnogle, et al, over the past several days. I loved watching those teams play. They were outstanding teams. And I think this year's Mountaineers would kick their butts.
Those teams played with a lot of finesse and had a lot of skill, and Mike Gansey especially was a joy to watch, but I don't think those teams had nearly the athleticism of this year's team, and I think this year's team is unmatched in terms of its grittiness, hard work, and toughness. This year's team battles. They grind out wins. They are resilient. It doesn't matter if they get a lead and lose it, or if they get far behind. It doesn't matter what style of play they face. They're never out of the game. One thing I do think they share with the teams of the Gansey-Pittsnogle era, however, is their teamwork, their reliance on each other.
Yes, Da'Sean Butler is a superstar and will always be one of my favorite players. But there have been games as well when Wellington Smith or Kevin Jones or Devin Ebanks has led this team. And none of us will ever forget the dazzling performance and leadership of Joe Mazzulla on Saturday night against Kentucky.
I think this team has more great memories in store for us. More great performances. Eighty more minutes. Two more wins.