MORGANTOWN — It took 16 years from the time the NCAA began its first basketball championship tournament in 1939 for West Virginia to get into it for the first time in 1955, and the Mountaineers’ start in NCAA Championship play seemed hardly worth the wait at the time.
Those 16 years were hardly barren as the Mountaineers did win a national championship, taking home the NIT title in 1942 when the NIT was considered the more prestigious of the two tournaments, but that 1955 appearance seemed to be where the Mountaineers thrust themselves on the American college basketball scene.
They were led by the wonderfully flamboyant “Hot Rod” Hundley as he ushered the Mountaineers into their Golden Age of basketball, a wonderful run that would produce not only Hundley but the immortal Jerry West and Rod Thorn, which meant that from 1955 through 1963, WVU produced three Hall of Fame members and became a force in the NCAA Tournament.
While West Virginia owns no NCAA championships, it has reached the Final Four twice, once reaching the NCAA championship game and falling a point short of California with West leading the way in a thrilling overtime 71-70 loss.
On Thursday they travel to Birmingham, Alabama, to face Maryland in the 2023 NCAAs, trying to create another chapter and add a long list of heroic figures who produced the kind of madness that has made the tournament live up to the moniker the broadcaster Brent Musberger bestowed upon it— March Madness.
Let’s look back into the history and honor the heroes who made March the most anticipated time of year in WVU sports.
As noted, the first appearance for WVU was a forgettable one, facing LaSalle on March 8, 1955, with a team led by Hundley, who had become the Clown Prince of Basketball with such antics as shooting free throws with hook shots or from his knees, with passing skills heretofore only seen from the Harlem Globetrotters, running football plays on the basketball court.
He was a free spirit on and off the court, taking over the show even on the biggest stage, that being Madison Square Garden. With rookie coach Fred Schaus allowing him the freedom to perform, the world awaited Hundley’s appearance in the NCAA’s, but it lasted only one performance.
He and WVU ran into one of the greatest players of the 1950s in All-American Tom Gola, who scored 22 points and grabbed 16 rebounds in a one-sided 91-65 victory.
Hundley did score 17 points, but it took him 31 shots to do it, as LaSalle completely shut him down in the second half.
“I had 15 points in the first half amd we were right with them,” Hundley recalled for historian John Antonik in his book on WVU basketball “Roll Out The Carpet”. “I got one point in the second half. They went to a box and one and I couldn’t even get the ball.”
LaSalle went to the NCAA finals but lost to a San Francisco team led by a guy named Bill Russell.
West Virginia never had another player like Jerry West and college basketball has had very few of them .... and West got better in the NBA.
But he was a tragic figure in a number of ways, for he he was one of those players driven to win, but he never won a college championship and took nearly his entire professional career to win his only NBA title; all that despite being the MVP while losing in both venues.
West was a dominant NCAA Tournament force. He played in nine NCAA Tournament games and averaged 30.1 points a game, scoring in succession 10, 25, 36, 33, 38, 28, 34, 34, 37. At the same time he had eight straight double-figure rebounding games, averaging 13.8 boards a game.
In 1959 the world awaited a showdown between two of the greatest players in college basketball history, West vs. Cincinnati’s Oscar Robertson, but Cal beat Robertson and the Bearcats in the Final Four before beating West and the Mountaineers in the final.
That loss to Cal has eaten at West through his entire life.
In 2010, looking back on it, West admitted, “It certainly was a bitter time for me.”
And asked, when his biography came out, if he discussed the game with Darrell Imhoff, who became a teammate of his as a Los Angeles Laker, West answered:
“I don’t talk about it very much. I don’t like to bring up unpleasant memories. I felt like I let the state down and all the people that supported us.”
The people of the state never felt that way. Jerry West was/is as important to West Virgnia as coal.
The other West
It was only fitting that if Jerry West couldn’t come up with a game-winning shot when it was needed against Cal, another West — Jarrod — could. It was probably as dramatic a shot as has been made in the NCAA Tournament as any by a Mountaineer, although there certainly are other candidates.
What multiplies its value, however, is that the opposing that day was another WVU graduate, one who hates to lose every bit as much as Jerry West did — Bob Huggins.
Huggins had a team he felt could go deep into the tournament, a game in which he coached his best player ever, Kenyon Martin, who would become a National Player of the Year and a top NBA draft pick, but Martin could not stop Jarrod West.
The date was March 14 — 15 years ago to the day as this is written — in 1998. The game was being played in Boise, Idaho.
UC, the No. 2 seed and ranked ninth in the country, was facing an unranked WVU team but managed to hold Martin to six points as the game went down to one last shot. Jarrod West already had made four 3s, but with eight-tenths of a second left he threw up a long 3.
It had little chance of going in, especially when the ball was tipped as it left his hand. It was too strong, but it nonetheless banked in off the backboard, West’s fifth 3 for 15 points ... the shot echoed from Weirton to Welch, from Martinsburg to Matawan, as Tony Caridi says.
And what did West say?
“I shot it as high as I could and God let it fall in.”
The Greatest Game
You may get some argument here, but you shouldn’t.
It was March 19, 2005, WVU and Wake Forest in Cleveland, Ohio; a game sportswriter Bill Livingstone of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer would celebrate 10 years later by calling it “the greatest college basketball game every played in Cleveland.”
And, fittingly enough, it was won for WVU by a hometown kid, Mike Gansey, who grew up in suburban Olmstead Falls.
Gansey, of course, remains connected to Cleveland as general manager of the NBA Cavaliers, but across his chest it will always say “West Virginia.”
Wake Forest was led by future NBA star Chris Paul as the game dragged on through the night ... regulation, two overtimes.
The later it got, the better Gansey got. He finished with 29 points.
“It just kept going and going,” Gansey said of the game. “The ball just kept going in the basket. I wanted the ball, and I was going to shoot it every time because it just felt like I couldn’t miss. That wasn’t me. That was someone else.”
Final score, WVU 111, Wake Forest-107.
That game came in quite a run for WVU, beating Creighton 63-61 in the previous game and following it up by beating Bobby Knight and Texas Tech, 65-60, before running out of fuel in another emotional game in Albuquerque, losing in overtime to Rick Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals after leading 40-27 at the half.
‘You’ve Been Pittsnogled”
Kevin Pittsnogle became a verb with his late heroics and 3-point shooting. In the Texas Tech game he scored 22 and against Louisville he scored 25 to become one of WVU’s top NCAA performers.
But there was more to come on March 23, 2006. in the Georgia Dome. WVU and No. 2 Texas had duked it out all night with the Longhorns LeMarcus Aldridge scoring 26 points and getting 13 rebounds and it look as though they would beat WVU by three points at the end.
Until they were Pittsnoggled.
The two teams had met in the season’s third game with Texas ranked second in the nation and the Longhorns came away with a 76-75 victory. Now they looked like they would do it to WVU again, leading 71-68.
Pittsnogle, playing with his nose stuffed with cotton from a blow he’d taken earlier, calmly stepped forth at the top of the key behind the 3-point line and made a game-tying shot. Five seconds remained.
All WVU had to do was hold for five seconds to force overtime, but Kenton Paulino took the ball inbounds, drove into WVU’s half of the court and threw up a long 3 that was true. It mattered no more that WVU had overcome a 12-point halftime deficit.
They’d been “Paulinoed”.
No ordinary Joes
The nation learned recently that Joe Mazzulla was no ordinary Joe as he became coach of the Boston Celtics, but we in West Virginia knew that from his NCAA performance.
And Joe Alexander, who would become a first-round draft pick of the Milwaukee Bucks, joined him in becoming Mountaineer legends.
On March 22, 2009, unranked WVU went up against No. 9 Duke and pulled off a a 73-67 upset with Alexander scoring 22 points and making it a double-double with 11 rebounds while Mazzulla came off the bench to get a near triple double with 13 points, 11 rebounds and 8 assists, saving the day after Da’Sean Butler had fouled out.
Five days later WVU was eliminated by No. 12 Xavier as Alexander scored 18 with 10 rebounds and Mazzulla scored 10 with five assists.
Then came the 2010 Final Four team. Alexander was gone but Mazzulla was there, but he had suffered through a difficult season with an injured left shoulder. He was left-handed, couldn’t get the arm above the shoulder and played sparingly until WVU came up against Kentucky in the Elite Eight.
Starting point guard Truck Bryant had suffered a broken foot in beating Washington and Mazzulla was forced into action against No. 2 Kentucky. No one expected WVU to win without Bryant, but this was a special team in a special year and despite the Wildcats having John Wall, DeMarcus Cousings and Patrick Patterson, all NBA players, WVU pulled off the upset and rode Mazzulla’s will to get it.
Mazzulla was everywhere, forgetting entirely about his shoulder as he scored a career-high 17 points and dished out three assists. It was Mazzulla’s first start of the season and he brought a 2.2 scoring average into the game.
WVU’s Bob Huggins smothered UK with a 1-3-1 zone which led to them missing their first 20 3-point shots while Mazzulla and Da’Sean Butler tore them apart driving to the basket.
Mazzulla’s performance turned out not to be a fluke. The next year, while WVU lost to Kentucky in the tournament, 71-63, Mazzulla scored 20 points and four assists.
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