West Virginia doesn't get into these types of positions too often. The Mountaineers' last Final Four appearance was 46 years ago. A national championship in football was really only attainable in 1988. These appearances on the largest of national stages don't come along with the frequency of wins over Rutgers, so that makes them all the more special.
I told myself before the Louisville game not to get too hopeful. The Cardinals are an outstanding team, and could win the national title themselves. However, the lure of a possible trip to the Final Four was too much. As I strolled around the floor of The Pit, fully two hours before tip-off, the excitement began to take hold.
Then the game started, and mercy, weren't the Mountaineers awesome. Shot after shot ripped the twine. WVU's lead mounted. And although Louisville cut into it a bit at the break, the Gold and Blue still led by 13 points at the half. As I gather up my cameras and headed for the other end of the floor, however, I had one of those nagging feelings that this might be one of those especially painful days that WVU fans know all too well.
I won't beat you with details of the second half or overtime. You don't want to read about them, and I certainly don't want to relive them. But as the game came down the stretch, the feeling was that WVU had to hold on and win it in regulation. Going into overtime would be a big psychological blow, one from which I didn't think the Mountaineers could recover. And, as we know, they didn't.
Before I go any further with this, I want to make it clear that I don't fault the team at all. These players gave everything they had. They didn't blow the game. They didn't choke, no matter what some losers masquerading as fans would like to say. Louisville was simply a bit better on this day. Anyone who could have stood with me and watched the tears flow in the Mountaineer locker room would have a hard time saying otherwise.
I also don't mean to say that the fans hurt any more, or even to the same level, as the players do. Fans, no matter how dedicated, didn't put in the thousands of hours of work and practice necessary to get to this point. The fans didn't juggle what amounts to two full time jobs. But stil, they feel the bitter sting of the oh-so-close loss.
The easy analysis of my emailer's initial thought would be that WVU fans hurt so much after losses like this because they care so much. West Virginia University is the state's team, as Gov. Joe Manchin said in an interview earlier in the week. But, I think there's more to it than that.
A few teams, like that 1988 football team and this year's basketball team, sink their hooks into the souls of not only Mountaineer sports fans, but of many West Virginians who aren't necessarily big fans of athletics. And I think the reason is because many West Virginians see themselves reflected in those teams. Tough, hardworking, responsible and gritty, these WVU squads are just like many of the fans that spend their hard earned dollars to watch their Mountaineers play. In return for that money, West Virginians expect good value. When they don't get it, there's going to be grumbling. But when they do, magical and glorious things are possible.
I don't know if West Virginia will ever get back to the Elite Eight, or be within a minute of a Final Four, or make it to a BCS championship game again. Numerous great teams across the country never reach those levels, because so many things have to go right to just make it to that stage. That doesn't diminish those teams in any way. It just points out how incredibly difficult it is to even have a chance to be in that position.
When you top that off with the manner in which the game was decided, and with how close WVU was to playing on Saturday night, in St. Louis, in the Final Four, well, I guess it's supposed to hurt. But it sure doesn't make it any easier.
In a few days, I'm sure I'll feel better. Taking my daughter to swim class, covering spring football practice and getting back into the daily routine will help put this one in the past. But like those other heartbreaking defeats in Mountaineer history, this one will never quite go away.