The Times West Virginian

WVU Sports

March 6, 2011

HERTZEL COLUMN: Improbable win hard to explain

MORGANTOWN — Normally, your tried and true correspondent finds the words flowing easily as he slides behind the keyboard of his Toshiba laptop following a game.

After all, he has done it more than 6,000 times.

But what transpired Saturday afternoon, in what was advertised as a basketball game but turned instead into a real-life drama of success and failure, of heat-stopping action wrapped in the cloak of the emotion of Senior Day, simply cannot be told in words.

How, after all, do you describe Bobby Thomson’s and Bill Mazeroski’s home runs, Michael Jordan’s buzzer beater, Larry Bird’s steal and Da’Sean Butler dropping in game-winner after game-winner just a year ago, all wrapped up into this frenzied afternoon of college basketball?

To say West Virginia University defeated Louisville, 72-70, to earn a first-round bye in the Big East Tournament, which begins for them on Wednesday in Madison Square Garden, says it all and at the same time says nothing.

Indeed, it fails to mention the moment after the final buzzer went off and a desperation heave by Louisville fell harmlessly to earth. That was when West Virginia players, heroes all on this day, embraced each other warmly, their expressions ranging from sheer ecstasy to a deep, unbelieving deep stare, wondering if what they that had seen had really happened.

As fans streamed onto the court — we cannot say rushed the court, for they were caught by the surprise finish and weren’t sure whether to head for the exits or the floor — senior John Flowers dropped first to his knees, then flat upon his back.

Every ounce of energy had been sapped from the 39 minutes he played, minutes in which he somehow pulled down 12 rebounds to go with 12 points while blocking almost everything Louisville threw up toward the basket. He finished with six blocks, somehow managing never to scrap his knuckles on the Coliseum rafters, although the Louisville players would swear he was up there.

“There was a lot of emotion. I didn’t think I’d have that much emotion throughout the game. It was just crazy like,” Flowers said.

But from the opening tip, there was something different, a different kind of urgency, a strength-sapping, energy-draining emotion.

“It took a toll on me, just thinking this is my last time playing in front of these people. That kept going through my mind. It was nerve-wracking,” Flowers continued.

And the final seconds were insanity without an asylum.

The Mountaineers had played an amazing game, junior Kevin Jones finally being what everyone thought he would be coming into the season, ringing up 25 points and 16 rebounds, 11 of them on the offensive glass.

But Truck Bryant had struggled, as had Casey Mitchell, and with 48 seconds left, WVU trailing by 3 points, Flowers had a chance at being a hero with an open 3 from the corner but missed it, only to have Mitchell run down the rebound, the last of WVU’s 25 offensive rebounds.

Still, the Mountaineers couldn’t score, and when Chris Smith hit a pair of free throws, Louisville was riding high with a five-point, 69-64 lead with just 18 seconds left.

“I didn’t think it was over,” Flowers said, despite the miss. “We were down 3. Coach drew up a great play for Casey and, being the clutch shooter he is, he knocked it down.”

Now it was a two-point game and Louisville would shoot two more free throws, making only one, setting up the last eight seconds of the game, the Cardinals clinging to a 70-67 lead.

Once again the Mountaineers went to Mitchell, once again he hit from far outside, his second straight 3, and the score was 70-70, the clock showing 8 seconds, meaning Louisville now had one final chance to win it.

Preston Knowles, who had had a big day up until then, launched a 3 but missed it, the ball coming into the hands of Truck Bryant as Knowles came up and somehow drilled him in the eye. There were 0.6 seconds left and while it was a foul, it was a foul that sometimes is overlooked.

“It’s a controversial call, a close game like that. We were lucky enough the referee had enough guts to make the call,” Flowers said.

That sent Bryant to the line. He made the first for the lead after having missed almost everything else in the game. Now he had a second shot, a shot he was trying to miss because a rebound would run out the clock without Louisville having time to shoot.

The shot he tried to miss he made. Louisville got off the desperation shot, but it was nowhere close.

And this is how it all came down from that moment on to Flowers.

“At the end of the game, the gun sounded … that was it. ‘Country Roads’ started playing. Fireworks started. It was emotional. I love to play here. I’ve been a through a lot since I first got here. Then this, this last game, there was a lot going through my mind,” he said.

He hugged fellow senior Cam Thoroughman, then dropped to his knees and onto his back as photographers loomed over him, snapping away. He stay there for a minute, maybe two, just soaking it in, then walked through the crowd, high-fiving fans as they parted leaving him a clear path to the locker room after his final Coliseum game … and his most memorable.

Later, in the players’ interview room, he thought back to the two games with Louisville, one a loss at the buzzer, the other a win.

“You know,” he would say, “I cried after both of them.”

E-mail Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com.

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