By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
You expected Rod Serling, not Tony Caridi, to be opening the West Virginia University post-game radio show following a 77-61 victory over Texas Tech.
“There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.”
You expect the camera to begin showing a 9-11 basketball team, a troubled, demoralized team from West Virginia, boarding an airplane in Clarksburg to fly to Lubbock, Texas, perhaps with a reference to the late Buddy Holly and the fact the Lubbock native had died 54 years and one day earlier in a plane crash on a cold winter’s day near Clear Lake, Iowa.
You could almost hear Serling in the background noting “that was the day the music died.”
But this plane that was boarded by the Mountaineers was not a flight of death, but instead a flight that would give life, for it would be a different team that would deplane in Lubbock, a team that would play, as Bill Raftery would put it, “string music” for most of the afternoon.
Could it have been a trip to the “Twilight Zone” that brought Bob Huggins the team he thought he was going to have all season?
Deniz Kilicli was not the klutzy big man inside he had been far too many times, instead being a force inside, making shots, rebounding, blocking shots and, yes, even making a nifty no-look pass off into the corner to Kevin Noreen.
This was a team that would pass the ball, a team that move and a team that would make shot after shot after shot.
If this was “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight” which boarded the plane in West Virginia, and it was a team shooting but 39 percent to rank 318th among major basketball powers in American, the team that deplaned shot as if it were one of John Beilein’s sharpshooting teams from the previous.
It hit 56 percent of its shots … an unheard of figure this season.
And the farther it got from the basket, the better.
West Virginia made 10 3-point baskets in 19 tries, 55 percent. That had to be Pittsnogle and Beilein and Gansey and Herber out there, not this year’s team, yet they were Eron Harris and Terry Henderson and, yes, Gary Browne.
Gary Browne had made one 3-point shot all season in Big 12 Conference play out of 13 attempts.
He wound up hitting a trio of 3s on this game.
You can hear Rod Serling again:
“You’re traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s the signpost up ahead— your next stop, the Twilight Zone!”
It took a while to get to “The Twilight Zone,” even though West Virginia never trailed in the game.
They burst to a 12-point lead at 14-2, but they have led leads like that slip away before and at halftime it was down to three points, young Harris struggling with 1-for-5 shooting.
But somehow they found enough every time they needed it, every time Tech would close to within four points or so, just as they did when Texas Tech made it 59-55. To make matters worse Aaric Murray had just picked up his fourth foul while Kilicli already was seated with his.
Then Harris hit a 3. Browne followed immediately with another 3. Staten had a steal and a dunk, and the lead was back to 12 and it was over.
From 59-55 WVU closed with an 18-6 run and they did it looking just like coach Bob Huggins had expected them to look all along, with defense, with ball handling, hitting shots.
They wound up looking like and playing like a team, six players scoring nine or more points.
“We passed the ball. It wasn’t a dribbling exhibition. We made cuts,” Huggins would say. “The second half we still did a couple of bonehead things.”
True, but it wasn’t like the first half when they were making 12 of their 18 turnovers for the game.
“The first half could have been 30-2 if we hadn’t thrown the ball away,” Huggins said.
They were doing that in part because they were still trying to figure out how they had wound up in “The Twilight Zone,” getting used to doing things the right way.
And then it was over and they had won by 16 points and you might have heard Rod Serling saying:
“It’s been said that science fiction and fantasy are two different things: science fiction the improbable made possible; fantasy, the impossible made probable. What would you have if you put these two different things together? Well, you’d have an veteran basketball coach named Bob who knows a lot of tricks most people don’t know and a little team named the Mountaineers who loved him, and a journey into the heart of the Twilight Zone.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.