Finally, WVU Looks Worthy

Call it whatever cliche you want: a must-win, a backs-against-the-wall moment or any of the countless other ones that apply. Don't let the overuse of the words fool you, though. West Virginia needed a win in the worst way and delivered at a place it rarely has found success.

The Petersen Events Center had not been kind to WVU in its relatively short history, as only the Mountaineers' 2004-05 team -- the one that went on a magical run to the Elite Eight -- had ever ventured into the Panthers' home and came away victorious.

But with one of the heroes of that squad, Mike Gansey, looking on Thursday, West Virginia delivered a performance far more dominant than that one at a time it was much-needed.

A nip-and-tuck first half seemed to indicate there would be high drama in what may be the last Backyard Brawl for the foreseeable future, but for the first time in a long time, the Mountaineers looked like a team worthy of an NCAA Tournament bid.

They played the sort of defense that had been sorely lacking recently. Pitt had come to the Coliseum only weeks earlier and scored 36 of its 72 points in the paint to leave with a win that, at the time, was seen as pivotal to its own turnaround.

This time, the Panthers managed only 16 that close to the basket. In a pivotal stretch, WVU's defense clamped down, leaving the hosts scoreless for nearly 6:00 while the Mountaineers' lead ballooned well into double digits. Guards Truck Bryant, Gary Browne and Jabarie Hinds combined for nine steals, which they turned into a 10-2 edge in fast-break points.

West Virginia's players, according to coach Bob Huggins after Saturday's loss to Louisville, needed to "step up like a man and make free throws." They did Thursday, canning 18 of 19 foul shots (94.7 percent).

After that same loss to the Cardinals, WVU's ability to handle a full-court press when it mattered most was in question. The Mountaineers even handled those questions, with Browne cruising for an uncontested layup to make it 60-44 when his teammates shredded Pitt's attempt at the press in the waning minutes.

They found balance that had been lacking, with four players in double figures and none scoring more than Kevin Jones' 16. They didn't rely on Jones to do it all, as West Virginia's star didn't manage a single offensive rebound and took only 10 shots.

It was, as Jones said afterward, the team's most complete performance of the season. It was a 40-minute game where effort was evident throughout on both ends of the floor.

It came not a moment too soon. A loss on the Panthers' home floor may have proven to be a hole too deep to climb out of. WVU could have been bound for the NIT with a loss.

Instead, Huggins' troops looked worthy of participation in the NCAA Tournament for the first time in a long time. If they play as they did on Thursday, they may prove capable of a deep run few were expecting when the Brawl tipped off.

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