Under Pressure

There were so many heroes in West Virginia's 111-105 win over Wake Forest that some of them were bound to get overlooked. Consider that situation at least partly remedied with this look at Mountaineer backup guard Darris Nichols.

Nichols' box score certainly doesn't reveal the impact he had on the game, especially in the second overtime period when WVU finally put the contest away. The true freshman scored just four points (1-3 from the field and 2-4 form the line) and had one assist and one blocked shot in 13 minutes of action. However, it was the timing of those plays, as well as his steadiness down the stretch, that helped the Mountaineers advance to the Sweet 16.

Nichols first big moment came in the first overtime. With starter J.D. Collins momentarily sidelined after a shot to the face, Nichols took possession of the ball and started the offense, but soon saw that the Demon Deacons weren't going to make things easy for him.

"They were over-pressuring against Tyrone underneath, and I couldn't get the ball to him, so I just had to penetrate and see what happened," said Nichols of the possession.

What happened may have been the most important moment of young Nichols' career. He drove, pulled up, and fired a good shot that just rimmed out. However, teammate D'or Fischer grabbed the rebound to give the Mountaineers another chance. Again Nichols had an opening for a shot, and again, he took it. This time it swished through the net, giving the Mountaineers a four-point lead.

By itself, the shot certainly won't make many highlight films. However, the fact that Nichols showed the confidence, as a freshman, to take another shot after missing one in a crucial situation showed how far he has progressed this year. It also gives a glimpse as to the type of pressure player he will be during his final three seasons at WVU.

Collins agrees, noting that Nichols has the talent to be a great player at West Virginia. As he headed to the bench following his injury, WVU's underrated junior point guard had some words of wisdom for his understudy.

"I just said, ‘You play hard against me every day in practice. You are prepared for this,' the tough Collins recalled. "He stepped up and made a big shot when I got my lip hurt. After that, I told him, ‘You just made a tough shot. Relax and have fun.' He played well, and I think he's going to be great."

The discussion of Nichols' future, however, can wait, because Nichols wasn't finished with the present. With 3:14 to go in the second overtime, Collins committed his fifth foul, and head coach John Beilein again called on his freshman. Again, Nichols was equal to the task.

On WVU's second possession following Collins' departure, Nichols found Kevin Pittsnogle, also recently off the bench, for a big three-pointer that pushed West Virginia's lead to seven points with 2:30 to play. And then came the highlight play of his night.

After missing a shot on the Mountaineers' next possession, Nichols raced downcourt to defend against Wake's transition game. The Deacs' Trent Strickland, a six-foot, five-inch 215 pound forward, caught a pass, drove the baseline and rose to put the ball in, but he didn't see the shortest player on the court preparing to challenge his shot. WVU's freshman on the spot leaped and rejected Strickland's try as if he were channeling D'or Fischer, leaving Strickland in a state of shock. Kevin Pittsnogle rebounded the ball and gave it back to Nichols, who was promptly fouled. Nichols proceeded to drain both free throw attempts, giving the Mountaineers an eight-point cushion with 1:31 to play – a lead that proved too much for Wake Forest to overcome.

"When J.D. got in foul trouble I knew I had to step up," said Nichols, who is still a bit shy and reserved around the media. "On the block, I saw him going baseline and I thought he was going to dunk on me. He dunks on a lot of people. I got down there too late to take a charge, so I just jumped and I got it. I definitely surprised him."

Nichols surprised many fans watching the game with his calm and collected play down the stretch. Although several Wake players threw some smack talk at him while he was on the line, he says it didn't affect him.

"I didn't hear them,' said Nichols of the taunts directed his way. "I saw them looking at me, but I blocked it out."

Part of the concentration required to do that comes from necessity. Nichols admits he still isn't fully comfortable with all of the duties required of a West Virginia point guard, and as a result has to pay all of his attention to his assignments.

"It's all still new to me, so I'm still thinking about what I'm doing," Nichols said of his play on the court. "I have to think about where I'm supposed to be and what I'm supposed to be doing. I'll look back on it later and remember it, though. It was a great game."

It was indeed a memorable contest, and without Nichols' contributions, Mountaineer fans might not be celebrating a Sweet 16 berth this week.

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