"This is what conference tournaments are all about," said Mike Gansey, who gave WVU the victory with two free throws just before the end of regulation. "I would have never imagined this coming into this tournament. We were trying to hopefully win a game or two to get into the NCAA tournament. This is just unbelievable."
Just as it had in its first two games in the conference tournament, West Virginia came out strong, when Frank Young – who once again earned the start for an ill Tyrone Sally -- hit a long three to open the scoring and start the Mountaineers off on the right foot. WVU would hold on to the advantage, and at the first media time out New York's new fan favorite held a 10-9 advantage.
Unhappy with his team's inability to end West Virginia's dreams in the early going, Villanova head coach Jay Wright lit into his troops in the huddle, looking to bring the Mountaineers back to earth.
Apparently his speech worked. Out of the timeout, an 11-3 Villanova run, put the ‘Cats ahead 20-13, and a worn-down group of Mountaineers seemed to be on the verge of folding like a rookie poker player with a pair of fours.
"I really sensed at that point that we were starting to give into fatigue a little bit," admitted Coach Beilein. "They riddled the three zone, and they were getting good shots."
But West Virginia was not ready to surrender its hopes of a possible title, and the Mountaineers went on a run of their own. Mike Gansey's long three from the corner began a 20-2 WVU run, and when the smoke cleared Gansey's layin from a D'or Fisher assist gave West Virginia a 33-25 lead, and the hopes of those wearing Blue & Gold were quickly renewed.
"We made a couple of shots, and all of the sudden I think Villanova might have thought, ‘Hey, this team isn't going to go away,'" Beilein explained. "Then we really started to get some confidence. It was important for us to make that comeback."
The West Virginia lead would grow as large as 11, but a couple of late buckets sent Villanova to the locker room trailing just 42-35.
It was still either team's game, but the numbers at the break were all that West Virginia could have hoped for. Gansey led all scorers at the break with 14 and Young was again in double-figures with 10. The Mountaineers were shooting 58.6 percent, they led the rebound battle 16-9 and they boasted 12 assists while committing just two turnovers.
Everything was going well in Mountaineer Country, but this Cinderella unit had to cool off sometime.
The freeze certainly didn't happen immediately, however, as West Virginia came back onto the floor with the smoke still pouring out of its ears. A Kevin Pittsnogle fade-away three gave the underdog Mountaineers a 49-39 lead, and WVU was 17 minutes from history.
The Villanova run that everyone in Madison Square Garden expected finally came after the first media timeout, which did not come until the 14:09 mark of the second half. Again Wright went to a heated rally cry, and again his team responded.
This time around the result was a 12-2 Nova run that pulled the two teams even at 53-53 with 12:02 remaining. Many started to suspect that West Virginia, which has suffered through injuries, illness and fatigue throughout its three day stay in the tournament, had simply run out of gas.
This Cinderella, however, had no plans of handing in her championship duds. A Joe Herber three put West Virginia ahead once again, and when Young knocked down a trifecta from the free throw line, it appeared as though the Mountaineers had stemmed the run.
But Nova, a No. 4 seed which also had dreams of taking a trophy home, was not about to call it quits. After a Pittsnogle jump hook came up short, Nova quickly converted the opportunity into an easy bucket to tie the game once again at 64-64.
West Virginia again answered the run, this time with a Gansey runner and a Pittsnogle three, and entering the final four minutes WVU was clinging to a 71-65 advantage. Cheers of "Let's Go Mountaineers" began to fill the city that never sleeps, and the Syracuse faithful, of all people, were leading the way.
Just 3:39 stood between the Mountaineers and a spot in the history books, and with fingers, toes and whatever else they could find crossed, the Mountain State held its breath.
Beilein's squad would remain in front, but with 56.3 seconds left on the clock a Randy Foye dunk brought the ‘Cats within one at 73-72. Then, after J.D. Collins felt the pressure of a Villanova trap and through the ball away, Curtis Sumpter gave his team its first lead of the second half with a jumper over Gansey.
With 30.7 on the clock, West Virginia's dreams appeared as though they could be dashed, but Joe Herber had other ideas. WVU's junior guard hit found an opening in the right corner and released a long three that tickled the twine with 19.4 seconds. A sellout Garden crowd rose to its feet, but Nova quickly answered. Foye again pulled his team even, this time on a runner with 10.4 seconds.
The game was in West Virginia's hands, with the opportunity to either win the game or send it to overtime. Patrick Beilein's NBA-range three found nothing but air, but Gansey was there for the rebound. As the precious seconds ticked away Gansey laid the ball back up. The ball fell harmlessly off the rim, but the whistle blew signaling Ray foul. After getting an, "I love you," from his head coach Gansey coolly stepped to the line, knocked down a pair and sent his team into the finals with a 78-76 win.
"When I got the foul I knew I was going to the line," said Gansey. "I just looked up, looked around, and the whole Madison Square Garden was standing up. Probably the whole country was watching me. It's just an unbelievable feeling. I really can't explain it."
Gansey led the Mountaineers with 22 points, but he was not alone. Pittsnogle's 18, Young's 12, 11 from Herber and 10 from Collins were also huge in the WVU attack.
"We're enjoying this one," said Beilein. "This is a great lesson in life. Whether in your job, your marriage, whatever is going on, you gave to stick with things and make them work. This is just a great place for our kids to be."
The Mountaineers will take on the winner of the Syracuse/UConn semifinal for the Big East championship Saturday night at 8 p.m. It will be a tough matchup either way, but at this point this WVU team really does not care who the opponent is.
"It seems like at this time it doesn't matter who we play," said Gansey. "This is Big East basketball and the Big East tournament. It really doesn't matter."