By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
It was brewing all through this 41st meeting between West Virginia University and Marshall. You could feel it. You could sense it.
It’s that way when even the cheerleaders take their competition as intensely as these schools do, so you imagine what happens when you get 10 overgrown young athletes banging at each other for bragging rights within a state that has only two major universities.
Of course, up in Morgantown, they believe there is only one major university, and they go out and prove it over and over on the football field and basketball court, this time with the Mountaineers walking away with a 69-59 victory, an important one in their season and one that they won with a third of their team sitting in the locker room.
They say this is a rivalry and it is according to the attitudes, as was shown when a near brawl broke out, but as far as the competition … well, that’s not really much of a rivalry, WVU winning 17 of 22 of the games played in Charleston.
Let’s put another way. When WVU’s most valuable player in the game, Deniz Kilicli, was asked if, when he finished his career at WVU, he would miss the rivalries with Pitt and Marshall, he thought for a moment, then answered:
“I’ll miss playing Pitt.”
“You won’t miss playing Marshall?” he was asked.
“I didn’t say that,” he said, smiling.
The implication was quite clear. Pitt was a competitive, cleanly played rivalry.
This one comes up lacking.
Bob Huggins knows something about rivalries himself.
“When I was at Cincinnati everyone was our rival,” he said. “That’s because we won all the time.”
But there was a matter of Cincinnati playing Xavier. It was a real rivalry when Huggins was there and as recently as couple of years ago it broke out into a major brawl that cancelled the game for a year.
“To me, this is not Cincinnati-Xavier,” Huggins said. “The schools are five minutes apart. They are in the same city. I honestly believe when people leave here, their people root for us in our other games and our people root for them.”
That may be a bit of a stretch, but you can grasp what Huggins was trying to say.
So it was as the clock ticked into the final two minutes, with all the shoving and pushing, all the trash talking that had transpired, you kind of felt like you were watching an old couch about to get lit in the aftermath of a tough WVU football victory … the football analogy isn’t all wrong.
There came a moment when Kilicli made a move through a tangle of elbows, hips and shoulders to the basket to score two of his 21 points, banging all the way and windup on the floor with a couple of Marshall bodies lying near him.
One of those bodies belonged to Robert Goff, whose contribution during his 20 minutes in the game was 0 points, 0 shots taken, 0 for 2 from the free throw lane, four rebounds and about to be four personal fouls.
As WVU guard Juwan Staten started down the court, Goff not so subtly stuck out his foot and tripped him, and all of a sudden all hell was breaking loose, players confronting players, officials trying to keep a fight from erupting, coaches turning peace makers.
Not a punch was thrown, but there were angry looks and angry words and the officials were taking names and numbers as a group of WVU players left the bench to get out on the floor … a no-no that carries ejection as a penalty.
The officials went to view the tape, the players huddled with their teammates.
“We were telling each other we are family,” Staten said. “We had to stay together. All that matters, we said, were the five guys on the court.”
In the end, Goff was ejected with a deliberate foul and also got a technical. So did WVU’s Gary Browne, but he seemed to enjoy every minute of it, taking part in a rivalry game again.
“I am from another country,” the native Puerto Rican said. “This is a rivalry game, like Puerto Rico vs. Mexico. I love games like this. It brings the whole state with it.”
As it was Aaric Murray, Eron Harris, Terry Henderson and Jabarie Hinds were ejected for WVU.
It took 38 minutes to play 1:35 of the game. There even was another technical, Staten missing a dunk after a foul had been called as he drove to the basket, but that was minor stuff compared to what had just transpired.
Most important, however, is that it made a team of the Mountaineers right there.
“The team came together,” Kilicli said. “We said no matter what, we are not losing this thing. They tried everything. They were trash talking. They were bumping. That didn’t work either.”
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter@bhertzel.