When college basketball season opened last fall, there were 347 NCAA Division I teams in 32 conferences participating.
Saturday evening, when West Virginia University faced Duke in the NCAA Tournament semifinals in Indianapolis, 343 of those teams were at home.
WVU fell to the Blue Devils, 78-57, in front of a crowd of 71,298 at Lucas Oil Stadium to cap a 31-7 season for the Mountaineers.
Nevertheless, a season in which coach Bob Huggins’ Mountaineers set a school record for victories and reached the Final Four for the first time since the Jerry West-led 1958-59 team will not soon be forgotten.
“I’m proud of our players and our coach and everyone connected with the team, the entire department and all the fabulous people who followed us this year,” athletic director Ed Pastilong said Sunday. “It was a tremendous team effort by every person in the state. This couldn’t have happened to a nicer bunch of guys.”
Gov. Joe Manchin was with the team in Indianapolis.
“This team has meant so much to the entire state of West Virginia,” said Manchin, who had a front-row seat behind the bench. “Win or lose, the people of this state love this team so much.”
WVU President James Clements enjoyed the Mountaineers’ basketball success during his first year in office.
“What this means to the university and the state is incredible,” Clements noted. “They played so hard all year and had such good chemistry.”
Falling two wins short of a national championship doesn’t dampen his enthusiasm.
“I am so proud of this team,” Clements said. “What a great year it has been and what great thrills they have given us. We had not made the Final Four in 51 years. Bob Huggins is a great coach and leader, and this team has represented the university so well.”
West, whose team lost a 71-70 heartbreaker to California in the 1959 NCAA Tournament title game, said the pride of representing WVU and the state of West Virginia never leaves.
“Those kids have the same feelings we had a long time ago,” West said from Los Angeles. “It was exciting to be representing the university and the state itself. It was an excitement I’ll never forget. They will have memories to share forever when they leave WVU.”
The Mountaineers have been strong during the postseason in recent years. West Virginia has reached the Sweet 16 in five of its last six NCAA tournament appearances (2010, 2008, 2006, 2005 and 1998). WVU is 18-6 in postseason games (five NCAA and two NIT appearances) in the last seven seasons.
WVU made its seventh straight postseason appearance: 2010 NCAA Final Four, 2009 NCAA first round, 2008 NCAA Sweet 16, 2007 NIT champion, 2006 NCAA Sweet 16, 2005 NCAA Elite Eight and 2004 NIT second round.
Huggins has now finished in the Top 10 eight times during his coaching career.
Senior Da’Sean Butler, who suffered a knee injury during his collegiate finale against Duke, has been a part of more WVU wins (107) than any other player in school history, passing Darris Nichols, who was a part of 99 Mountaineer wins. Senior Wellington Smith is now in second, having played a part in 102 WVU victories.
West Virginia is 107-39 with Butler in the lineup.
Looking ahead, Pastilong knows staying at the top in a competitive environment is a challenge.
“College athletics are so competitive,” said Pastilong, who will retire this year and move into an emeritus position. “People really enjoy that competitiveness. People really enjoy the intercollegiate, extracurricular part of their institution being displayed via the athletic contests. Each institution wants to be very competitive.
“It’s important that each institution realizes it’s an academic center first. The intercollegiate athletic programs are extracurricular activities. I think we’ve been fortunate in that the administrators of the institutions have kept that in perspective.
“For the future, it’s important that we enjoy the competitiveness and enjoy the outstanding facilities and enjoy the pleasure that it brings via these contests.”
The Associated Press and Mickey Furfari contributed to this report.