End of the Road

West Virginia's dream that it has been living since the Big East tournament began on March 9 lasted into the afternoon hours of March 26, but after playing a nearly perfect game in the first half and holding on for more than 19 minutes of the second half, the buzzing of the alarm began to awake the Mountaineers from their early-spring slumber.

The noise and light only became louder and louder as WVU and Louisville battled into an overtime period at The Pit in Albuquerque, N.M. and when the final horn ended the dream of the Mountaineer players', coaches' and fans' lives as the Cardinals took home a 93-85 overtime victory to cash in their tickets to next week's Final Four in St. Louis.

"We were involved in another terrific game," said WVU head coach John Beilein. "It's was one that has made this time of year so special for all of us. I know that anybody who was in the building today got their money's worth, and the players certainly had a lifetime experience that they will never forget."

The game started at a snail's pace, with both teams feeling the pressure of playing the biggest game of their lives. With more than four minutes off the clock, only six points had been scored. West Virginia was just 1-5 from the field while the Cardinals had connected on just 1-6. Both of the scores came on three-point strikes, WVU's from J.D. Collins and UL's coming from Tarquan Dean.

Poor shooting early, however, gave viewers a false impression, as offense became the order of the day after the first media timeout. Kevin Pittsnogle gave the Mountaineers their first lead with a long three as the shot clock expired, and that would spark a WVU run. The Mountaineers would score 16 of the next 18 points, nine of them from behind the three-point stripe. Patrick Beilein hit two of the three bombs, the second coming off of a bank, with Collins sandwiching his second from long range in between.

At 10:32 the horn blew for the second media timeout, and the Mountaineer faithful roared with approval as their team held a 19-7 lead.

West Virginia showed no signs of cooling down out of the timeout, and a Beilein three from 40-feet out gave WVU its biggest lead of the game at 27-11. The Mountaineers had made eight of their last nine shots and suddenly this group of "Cinderellas" seemed to be in control.

The lead would grow as large as 32-13 when Joe Herber joined the three-point party, but Louisville would not go into the locker room without making a run. A 13-6 run pulled the No. 4 seed within 12 at 38-26, but WVU was certainly not ashamed of the 40-27 advantage it took into the halftime break.

Shooting was the number that all of the "experts" had expected to decide the game, and West Virginia was hot as hot as a New Mexico summer. From the field the Mountaineers had hit on 13-of-20, but the more impressive stat was their 10-14 mark from downtown. A 12-6 assist-to-turnover ratio also had a smile on Beilein's face, and WVU was 20 minutes away from making a trip to St. Louis.

As most expected, Louisville began to charge back in the second half. Although the Mountaineers withstood the initial surge and still led 52-40 with, 14:29 on the clock, a 10-2 Cardinal run made the score 54-50 when Otis George hit a short jumper in the lane. WVU's one-time 20 point lead was down to four, and the faint sound of the alarm could be heard in the distance.

The Mountaineers, though, answered with a run of their own. Threes from Pittsnogle, Gansey and Herber would send WVU on a 14-8 spurt, and with just 6:47 between West Virginia and the Final Four, the lead was back to double digits at 68-58.

West Virginia would hold onto that 10-point margin until a Larry O'Bannon layin with 5:10 sparked a late Cardinal run. While WVU struggled to get the ball inbounds, U of L cam up with a steal and an easy layin, and when Herber's three sailed off the mark Garcia hit a runner that pulled his team within four, 71-67 with 4:08 still showing on the clock.

The lead would bounce between three and four, even after Garcia was whistled for his fifth foul. But with 2:04 on the clock George turned a missed Sally turnaround into a short jumper on the other end, and the momentum swayed to the Cards, who were trailing just 74-73.

Pittsnogle quickly put "Big Mo" back in his team's corner with a huge three with 1:44, and it was beginning to appear as the U of L's late run would not be enough.

"I was just happy to hit the shot," said Pittsnogle. "Any time you hit a shot like that it feels great. But I didn't think it was over. (The Cardinals) are a great team, and they have proven that all year."

Herber had a chance to put the game away with an 18-foot jumper with 57 seconds on the clock, but when his shot did not find the net, Louisville called timeout to set up a final run, down 77-75 with 48.3 seconds o the clock.

An O'Bannon runner tied the game for the first time since the opening half with 38 seconds left on the clock, but the Mountaineers still had one final chance to send themselves into the Final Four and continue the dream.

Collins' layin, however, was swatted away by Dean as the clock ticked inside 10 seconds, and West Virginia was lucky to even make it to overtime after Louisville failed to convert on a runout.

"We were trying to get a dribble-drive," explained West Virginia's head coach. "We were trying to get the last shot. We just went into it too early. We just had one guy just blow it up just a touch, but it's not a big deal. We had a good shot. It just got blocked."

An extra five-minute period would decide this early Big East battle.

Louisville struck first in the extra period when O'Bannon converted both ends of a 1-plus-1 free throw situation, and with 3:47 the Cardinals had opened up an 82-78 advantage. Two Beilein free throws and a Collins steal that led to a Gansey layin, though, quickly pulled the two clubs back even at 82-82 and the final 3:07 would determine just who would move on to college basketball's biggest stage.

Missed opportunities kept the Mountaineers from taking control, and Louisville went on a 6-1 run to take an 88-83 advantage with 1:35. Herber again came up short on a tough runner, and West Virginia was left with no choice but to foul. Louisville certainly did not set a record at the line, but they did do just enough to win, and WVU walked off the court with a disappointing 93-85 loss and a feeling of coming up just short.

"I wouldn't say we were worn out," said Pittsnogle. "We still had a lot of gas left. We just couldn't make the key plays when we had to make them and a couple of bounces went their way. It's tough. We played a good game today. We hit almost all of the shots we took. At the end, it just didn't fall our way."

WVU ends the season with a 24-11 record, while the Cardinals (33-4) advance to the Final Four since 1986.

"My guys are winners tonight in every way but the score," concluded Beilein. "They are going to take this into their life and continue to grow from it despite the outcome. It is a shame that some team had to lose. We lost on the scoreboard, but our kids have experienced something almost magical."

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