What Might Have Been

With the offseason for football and basketball upon us, it's time to let the creative juices flow. Today, contributor Jeffrey Mason provides us with a look at what a trip to St. Louis might have brought for the Mountaineer basketball team. And in the coming weeks, we'll begin our Crystal Ball Series on the 2006 football team.

West Virginia Wins Greatest Upset in NCAA Basketball Tournament History!

April 5, 2005

Coach John Beilein and the West Virginia University Mountaineers no longer refer to their state as "Almost Heaven." After upsetting ACC favorite North Carolina 77-76 in their first NCAA basketball title game since Jerry West was suiting up in Morgantown, West Virginia fans (as well as March Madness fans watching from all over the world) know full well that the entire state has reached a higher state of "Hoop Heaven Nirvana."

Down by ten points at halftime, the Mountaineer comeback came as absolutely no surprise to anyone who has been watching this tournament—that is what John Beilein's team is known for, particularly in this year's edition of March Madness. But the Tar Heels tried everything to stop the rain of treys—even a box-and-one defense on Kevin "You've Been Pittsnogle(d)" who scored 18 points.

After a subpar 5 of 16 first half three-point shooting performance, the Mountaineers (27-10) hit six in a row at one point in the second half and finished the national championship game with a record 19 of 36 treys. Las Vegas oddsmakers didn't even put WVU on the National Title odds board in January, when they would have been perhaps a million-to-one underdog to win the whole shebang, and were in the middle of a five game losing streak.

However, Beilein's team seemed to come together on the Bus Ride from Hell, the backed up, traffic-snarled multihour ride inching through the Lincoln Tunnel into the Big Apple hours before the start of the Big East Tournament. The Mountaineers had been ignored, laughed at or disrespected for so long, no one gave them a chance to win one game in Madison Square Garden, let alone three in three days. When they made the Big Dance (after losing the Big East title game to Syracuse), pundits were critical of the high number seven seeding, until The Run began.

The Mountaineers (with a modest 58-39 record in the first three years of Beilein's tenure in Morgantown) became NCAA basketball champions with the lowest total margin of victory, winning six games by a grand total of 21 points. The next closest title run in Blue and Gold history was back in 1942 when they started as the final seed of the eight-team National Invitational Tournament championship. That WVU squad won three games (over Long Island, Toledo, and Western Kentucky) by a total of 23 points to grab the Big Enchilada (at that time the NIT was a more prestigious tournament than the upstart NCAA bracket).

Each and every WVU game in this tournament was a roller coaster ride: a 63-61 "last slam dunk wins it" seconds-to-go victory over Creighton; a 111-105 double overtime win over Wake Forest (perhaps the best game in NCAA tournament history some say), a 65-60 win over Bobby (Intensity) Knight's Texas Tech squad; a 79-77 win over legendary coach number two—Rick Pitino and his Louisville Cards; a shocking five point win over the number-one-ranked Illini, 80-75, a game in which WVU hit only eight of 22 treys but recorded an amazing 24 to 8 assist-to-turnover ratio as D'or Fischer blocked six shots and scored eight points, all on slam dunks.

Most amazing of all had to be this come-from-behind one point win versus number-two-ranked North Carolina, thanks to Mike Gansey's rebound of his blocked layup and left handed reverse counter to win with one tick left on the clock. NBA great-to-be Tar Heel Sean May, playing on his 21st birthday, scored 20 points. But a key block of his jump shot by Fischer triggered the game-ending rally by the Blue and Gold hoopsters. After the game, May tipped his hat to the Mountaineers saying that "some things are just meant to be—my father was able to win a title (at Indiana) and I wasn't but at least I can say I was part of history—this team came from nowhere to win it all—it's never been done before and if we had to lose at least we know we just couldn't beat a team that was destined to be great."

Bedlam prevailed after the final whistle. Cameras caught a normally sedate Jerry West uncharacteristically hugging John Beilein and reminding him seconds after the game that his '59 team had lost the title by one point—the margin of West Virginia's historic win today. Mike Gansey's 19 points and six assists earned him Most Outstanding Player honors in the edge-of-your-seat thriller of a final.

President George Bush telephoned Coach Beilein and his players in the locker room after the game congratulating them on their never-say-die attitude.

Sports pundits and historians, quick to jump on the WVU bandwagon, are already considering The Run as an upset on par with the Miracle on Ice (U.S. hockey team's gold medal triumph in the 1980 Winter Olympics), NC State's hoop championship in 1983 over Phi Slama Jama U.—Houston, and the Jets upset of the Colts in Super Bowl III.

Even Virginia Governor Mark Warner, tongue-in-cheek, sent a message to West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin inviting the Mountain State to "come back into the fold" and rejoin the state from which West Virginia seceded during the Civil War. Governor Manchin reportedly replied that Warner should consider "changing the name of his state to East Virginia so as to better distinguish the Real Basketball Capital of the World from just another backwater NCAA title wannabee."

Jeffrey Mason is a WVU graduate who hails from Wheeling and now resides in in Southern Maryland.


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