Fight Night at the Garden

West Virginia's 78-76 win over Villanova was reminiscent of some of the classic heavyweight boxing battles that have graced Madison Square Garden over the years.

Just like a pair of top ranked champions, the Mountaineers and Wildcats traded punches, flurries and haymakers during one of the best basketball games I've ever seen WVU involved in, and I'm not just saying that because the Mountaineers won.

Consider some of these stats. The Mountaineers shot 49.1% from the field and 52.0% from the field, and neither of those numbers were the best in the game. Villanova hit 55.6% of its tries, including a sizzling 54.5% from beyond the arc. And the teams combined to make 19 of their 26 free throws, and recorded assists on 33 of their 58 baskets.

However, it wasn't just the scintillating stats that made this such an outstanding game. There was a flow to it, a sense of rhythm and pace, that immediately elevated it from just another semifinal contest to something that should stick in the minds of the sellout crowd that witnessed it. Both teams played the game they way it should be played, blending grace and athleticism with solid basketball fundamentals to produce something that should be framed and hung in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, just a handful of blocks to the north.

WVU got off to an early lead, hitting a pair of signature three pointers and moving the ball in the offense well to jump out of the gate for the third consecutive night. Then Villanova responded, moving out to a lead of ten points on the strength of their own brace of threes and a couple of balletic drives to the basket. Back came the Mountaineers, counterpunching with threes and driving reverse layups that had the Garden crowd on its feet, roaring just like it used to in the heydey of Ali and Frazier.

One and on it went, with first one team and then the other making plays and responding to challenges from its foe. I can only imagine what the atmosphere was like at some of those classic championship boxing bouts, but I have to think that it was pretty similar to what we all got to see on Friday evening.

So we came to the fifteenth round, or in this case, the final minute of the game. Villanova's Randy Foye drive for a dunk to cut WVU's lead to one, then Curtis Sumpter hit the uppercut with a layup to put the Wildcats up by one. Staggered, but unfazed, underappreciated Joe Herber responded with a right cross of a three-pointer from deep in the corner to put West Virginia back on top by the count of 76-74.

Villanova got a standing eight count (timeout) after that one, but shook the cobwebs off and fired a jab by Foye, who hit a runner in the lane to forge a tie at 76. That left it, however, to Mike Gansey, who hardly evokes images of a fighter, to land the punch that ended it all. The slender junior slipped by Villanova's Allan Ray to snare Patrick Beilein's errant shot and draw a foul with just two-tenths of a second remaining, and he wasted no time in delivering the haymaker free throws that knocked the Wildcats out of the tournament.

After the game, both teams had the look of fighters who had gone the distance. WVU had nary a player who wasn't sporting an ice bag or getting treatment for some physical ailment, but there's no doubt that the win eased some of those hurts. Villanova, meanwhile, might have been in better shape physically, but were thoroughly disheartened by being knocked out by a foe that simply kept getting back up off the canvas. Rocky would have been proud.

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