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February 18, 2012

HERTZEL COLUMN: Despite win, WVU still has work to do

MORGANTOWN — The most pressing question in the hours following West Virginia University’s total dismantling of the Pitt Panthers before their homefolks was whether or not you had witnessed the beginning or the end of something big.

The significance of the game going in was that it was the last scheduled meeting in either football or basketball between the Backyard Brawl rivals, making it perhaps the end of one of the great rivalries in college sports.

This was Yale-Harvard, USC-UCLA, Alabama-Auburn, Ohio State-Michigan on its own.

It was contested between schools less than 80 miles apart, an athletic hatred that was passed from father to son, from one generation to the next. They started playing it so long ago that the first meeting came slightly more than two months before Mount Vesuvius erupted and devastated Naples and a day short of two months before the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906.

In both football and basketball it was the one thread that held Mountaineer history together. If you could count on nothing else, you could count on WVU and Pitt playing and the experience being memorable whether or not the game was.

So it was on the final night, too, when in the midst of the action, shortly after the Pitt cheerleaders had hurled Panther T-shirts into the stands, there was a brief interruption in the game for a West Virginia fan, resplendent in his WVU T-shirt, was being escorted from the arena by security as the Pitt fans had their lone reason of the night to cheer.

His felony was in having a Pitt T-shirt thrown to him, which he promptly threw back toward the cheerleaders.

Certainly, considering that they had come up empty on their last seven trips up the Mon, winning this game was a huge experience for the Mountaineers.

“It means the world,” WVU superstar Kevin Jones would admit. “Just knowing how big this rivalry is, to win it on their court is an indescribable feeling. I’m glad it came with this team because we did so much this season and it’s not over; we still have a way to go. Everyone is starting to play hard and buy in to the situation.”

That brings us back to the original thesis of this dissertation, whether that game was the end or the beginning of something big. Certainly the two coaches — Bob Huggins from WVU and Jamie Dixon from Pitt — will work to schedule non-conference games, so critical is the series to the psyche of both schools, but whether or not that is feasible remains uncertain.

As for it being the beginning of something big, that is the most pressing question for WVU.

Indeed, their NCAA Tournament resume is incomplete at the moment, a 17-8 record and 6-6 Big East log hardly the kind of presentation you’d like to give to the Selection Committee.

The Pitt win did not change that fact.

“We have to realize when we play hard, we’re a very tough team,” Jones said in the hallway outside of the Pitt locker room. “We can beat anyone in the country.”

But before the Mountaineers have that chance, they have to go on the road again to face Notre Dame, a team that seldom drops a home game and that currently is playing better than anyone in the country, included in its latest winning streak a victory in Morgantown.

“Another tough road game,” Jones allowed. “Nobody wins in there, but we have to try to win in that hostile environment, just like this one.”

The Pitt win, therefore, would seem to be the beginning, either of the road to the NCAA or the beginning of the end.

WVU needs a lot of things, confidence among them.

“This gives us a lot of confidence,” Jones said. “We know Notre Dame got us at home. There were a couple of plays we slacked on. We will go back to the tape and see what we did wrong. It’s another hostile game.”

A hostile game and a crucial game. The Pitt victory only added to that.

“We’re far from out of the deep end of the water, but we’re working our way up,” Jones said. “We’re only going to get better with team effort.”

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com. Follow on Twitter @bhertzel.

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