Into The Spotlight

This is a story unlike any other you will read about this afternoon's battle between N.C. State and West Virginia. The score will be the same, the leading scorers won't change and WVU will still be 10-0 at the end of it.

This story, though, will be different because it will not be a story on how an N.C. State player stumbled at home as their leading player sat on the bench with an ankle injury and another of its top scorers battled the symptoms of the flu throughout the game. All of that played a part, but it does not tell the story of what happened on an unseasonably warm Sunday afternoon inside the RBC Center in Raleigh, N.C.

This game, the one that Mountaineer critics have had circled on their calendars all year long, was about an undefeated Big East basketball team overcoming the odds and coming out of their shell of anonymity and stepping into the national spotlight. This game was about a group of players who at one time in their life were not wanted at any other Division I-A school starting a season red-hot, playing fundamental basketball and knocking off two of the nation's top 25 teams over a five-day span.

Part of this storyline began on Dec. 29 when an 8-0 West Virginia team downed George Washington at home in the Coliseum to win the first "big game" on its schedule, but the meet of the story occurred on Tobacco Road in front of 14,886 red-clad Wolfpack fans, where West Virginia earned an 82-69 win silence many of its critics.

"I am just so proud of this team," said Mountaineer head coach John Beilein, as he held back his excitement in his postgame comments. "We had a few extra days to prepare, and I think that really helped us. N.C. State is a good team, and they really made us earn this one this afternoon."

Sunday's section of the story started with an N.C. State team that was missing Julius Hodge coming out with thoughts of defending its honor and earning a winner for their teammate. In six minutes the Wolfpack jumped out to a 16-7 lead, and it looked as though WVU's impressive early-season run was about to end.

Five J.D. Collins points and a Mike Gansey layin were all that West Virginia could muster in six minutes of basketball, and many of the N.C. State fans were sitting on their hands ready to watch a runaway.

That is when West Virginia's "Bench Boys" came to work. A Kevin Pittsnogle three started the Mountaineer run and some great defense on the other end held the Wolfpack right where they stood. That allowed Darris Nichols to cut the lead to three with a layin and a foul, and when the N.C. State fans looked back at the scoreboard, they knew they had a game on their hands.

Ilian Evtimov, though, was not ready to let the Mountaineers back. The junior center managed to knock down a crucial three and then knife inside and draw contact that sent him to the line. The five points helped keep the Pack in the game, and with 10:31 to play in the opening half, N.C. State was on top 24-18.

N.C. State had withstood the Mountaineers' opening surge, but it would not survive the next. A 21-6 West Virginia fun, sparked by some aggressive defense, incredible three-point shooting from Tyrone Sally and Jo Herber and a couple of fearless drives from both Herber and Gansey, put West Virginia comfortably ahead at 36-26 with 3:05 left on N.C. State's jumbo scoreboard.

The lead would grow as large as 11 when Pat Beilein hit his first three of the game with 2:20 left on the clock, but the Wolfpack was able to cut the deficit down to seven before the end of the half by way of a last-second three-point bomb from Engin Atsur. West Virginia, though, was happy with the lead it took to the break and the fact that they had outscored the home-standing Pack 20-10 in the paint, 10-0 on fast breaks and 13-3 off the bench. The contingent of WVU fans that had stopped in Raleigh on their way home from the Gator Bowl stood and applauded its team as they trotted to the locker room.

Anyone who has ever watched a college basketball game knew that N.C. State would make a run, and that spurt came in the opening minutes of the second half. The Wolfpack scored the first eight points of the second frame when Jordan Collins knocked down a three and Cameron Bennerman found the twine on a short jumper. With 17:51 left to play the WVU lead was just two, 43-41, but Beilein never panicked.

In a situation where most coaches would have signaled for a 30-second timeout, Beilein kept his cool, and his team did the same. An easy layup from Tyrone Sally ended the run, and D'or Fischer let the home fans know that WVU was not going away with a thunderous dunk. The first media timeout finally came at the 14:48 mark, with West Virginia leading by four and Fischer on his way to the line.

WVU's talented center would hit a pair, and the Wolfpack had no answer on the other end. Darris Nichols continued the run with a drive to the hoop, and another Beilein three helped West Virginia match its biggest lead of the game when they went up 54-43 with 12:35 remaining.

The home team would make a few more half-hearted runs, but they would never make a game of it again. Every time they would cut the lead, West Virginia would answer with a three. It happened first with Pittsnogle, then with Gansey and finally with Patrick Beilein, as West Virginia's lead held at 10 with nine minutes left to play.

As the Wolfpack struggled to hit anything but iron on the other end and head coach Herb Sendek begged for calls from the officials on every trip down, Collins and Sally extended the West Virginia advantage to 14 as the clock ticked inside eight minutes.

The remainder of the contest was little more than a formality. N.C. State sent the Mountaineers to the line time and time again, and Fisher and Collins made them play. The Wolfpack's hacking strategy did little good, as West Virginia cruised to an 82-69 victory and its first 10-0 start since the 1959-60 season.

Brackman's 19 points and Ilian's 16 were not nearly enough for the Wolfpack, as West Virginia found double-figure scoring from six different players. Gansey led the way with 15 points and 10 boards, while Herber chipped in 15 of his own to go with six rebounds and two assists. Sally and Beilein added 11 each to the attack, while Fisher and Pittsnogle ended the game with 10.

The Mountaineers will be back in action this Wednesday when they travel to Villanova for their Big East opener.

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