Gov. Joe Manchin got to see West Virginia University defeat the University of Washington in person at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse on Thursday night to witness as the team earned their way into the Elite Eight.
But on Saturday, as the Mountaineers tried to repeat history for the first time in 51 years for a trip to the Final Four, he had to settle for a television set and 30 to 40 guests who had attended an already-planned dinner at the Governor’s Mansion.
He still managed to see most of the game against the University of Kentucky Wildcats that landed WVU in the Final Four when the group retired to the third floor of the mansion to watch the game.
“It’s unbelievable,” Manchin said. “I can’t wait to be there” to watch WVU play next Saturday for a chance to play in the national championship game.
The dinner already had been planned and honored doctors, nurses and first-responders who had gone to Haiti to help in the aftermath of the Jan. 12 earthquake.
“One of the doctors was from over in Kentucky,” Manchin said. “They had their blue on. He was one who had gone with the West Virginia group. They were good sports. We had a good time.”
Manchin has spent time talking to the team members when he attends the various games.
“I spent so much time there,” he said. “I’ve spoken to them before the games and after the games. They truly are West Virginians. They understand what they mean to the state and what the state means to them. It’s someone who is determined, who works hard, who makes it happen and you don’t give up. That’s a West Virginian.”
Other notable area sports fans put in their 2 cents after watching WVU beat Kentucky, 73-66, in a game that saw the No. 2 seed Mountaineers dominate against the No. 1 Wildcats in both halves.
“I think West Virginia played well in almost every facet,” said Joe Retton, who coached at Fairmont State from 1963 to 1982. “Their shooting outside was phenomenal; their defense was super. People were asking me today, ‘What do you think about the game?’”
His response? “If West Virginia gets their game in, they certainly have a chance to beat them.”
He noted the 3-pointers the team made in the first half, including four by Da’Sean Butler.
“If my memory is correct, in the first half, I think they had eight 3-point plays, and they didn’t have any two-point plays, which is very unusual. And of course, West Virginia’s foul shooting was so much better than the opposition.”
Manchin gave a lot of credit to WVU coach Bob Huggins.
“I know how he coaches this team,” he said. “There is nothing easy. You’ve got to work hard for it. You’ve got to work the boards and never give up. They believe they can win. If they can work hard enough and don’t believe that anyone can outwork them or out-condition them, it’s because of Bob Huggins. That’s because of their coach.”
Don Vincent played with Jerry West at WVU, although he finished up in 1957-58 and did not go the Final Four in 1959.
“I thought the game was pretty nice,” said Vincent, who lives in Shinnston. “We won. That’s the main thing.”
Vincent broke his leg in the final game of the Southern Conference Championship his senior year, so he empathized with starting point guard Darryl “Truck” Bryant, who fractured a bone in his foot during practice Tuesday, the day the team left for Syracuse.
“It’s sort of an empty feeling,” he said. “I can understand the kid that broke his foot.”
When given the chance, Manchin did his own form of coaching to the players.
“They’ve adopted our state. I told them, ‘When you made the first decision to come to West Virginia, you will be a West Virginian for life. Look at the shirt you are wearing. If you look at the name on the shirt, that’s the name of our state. You do represent our state and we are proud, and we want you to carry it with pride.’”
When University of Kentucky power forward Patrick Patterson graduated from Huntington High School after helping that basketball team win three state championships, he visited Manchin in Charleston.
“I was working hard on him to stay in the state and to WVU,” Manchin said. “He wanted to go to Kentucky. I worked on him so hard. Maybe he’s having second thoughts. What do you think?”
Manchin plans to be in Indianapolis Saturday for the next game. The idea made him think back to 1959, when West helped lead WVU to its last Final Four game.
“I remember watching that game on television,” Manchin said. “”Fifty-one years. It’s the only time we have to compare to where we are today. We’ve not been there for 51 years. We’ve not been in that position for 51 years. It speaks volumes for our work ethic, our can-do attitude. I think it speaks a lot about our state.”
E-mail Mary Wade Burnside at email@example.com.