Grace Under Pressure

As the momentum swung back and forth like a chandelier on the S.S. Poseidon in West Virginia's thrilling 71-66 win over N.C. State, several Mountaineers dealt with the emotional aspects of the game in different ways.

Not surprisingly, it was the more experienced performers – those who have been stalwarts all season – who led the way. And although their approaches might have been different, the end results they got were the same.

It's interesting to note that each of the three leaders who spoke on this subject after the game exhibited approaches that are similar to their personalities and to their roles on the floor. That's likely one of the overall reasons for their success as well – the fact that they aren't "fake" on the court. They play the game according to their abilities, and their natural demeanor comes through in their play.

Take, for example, point guard Darris Nichols. He probably wouldn't react if someone dropped a snake on him, so it's no surprise to hear that he was one of the prime calming influences as the Wolfpack made their run.

"A lot of guys were getting kind of anxious, but I just thought I needed to calm them down a little," said Nichols, who has become a master of deadpan delivery and the art of understatement. "I thought if our bench was jittery, they would be too, so I thought we just need to clam down and do our thing."

With both benches going nuts, due to big shots by teammates and poor calls by the officials, keeping composure turned out to be one of the key factors in the game. The teams traded fire like dueling artillery emplacements, with players on both sides making key shot after key shot to change the lead and turn momentum back in their own favor. For six minutes in the second half, the game was a session of, ‘Can you top this?', and the answer, at least until the final minute, was a resounding yes.

"I thought it was just a tremendous game," head coach John Beilein said to both ESPN's Bob Valvano and to assembled media following the game. "It showed how both teams developed over the year."

One of those developments has certainly been the emergence of Frank Young as a go-to scorer. His pair of threes turned a four-point Mountaineer deficit into a two-point lead, yet despite that obviously emotional stretch, he managed to keep his cool.

"I've been in a lot of situations and a lot of big games, and coach tells us to keep our level," said Young, who rarely shows emotion on the court. "So I try to not get too high or too low. After I knock down a shot, I just try to concentrate on defense. I know they are going to play offense and not give up the game. We are going to have to get stops – they aren't just going to give up the game. And being a senior leader, I have to keep my poise."

Young did sneak out a little smile after Da'Sean Butler hit a pair of free throws to sew up the game in the final seconds, but most of the time he searches for that even keel. However, that's not an approach that works for everyone. Some players need a bit of emotion, a bit of visible expression, when the game is on the line, like sophomore Alex Ruoff.

Ruoff, who often signals to the student section after hitting a shot and plays with his emotions on display, isn't any worse the player for it. He's simply the type that has to let feelings flow while competing. As that sort, it can be tough when the other team is doing well.

"It's hard to handle [that kind of game]," said Ruoff of the back-and-forth contest. "It's almost like a pickup game,. You don't want to get into it with somebody. Number 4 (N. C. State's Courtney Fells) and number 14 (Engin Atsur) hit some shots in my face, but you don't want to try to get revenge. You have to forget about those. That atmosphere, that crowd, you have to just let it go and play on."

It's not surprising, either to see a point guard (Nichols) focus on calming the team, a poised veteran (Young) who keeps an even temperament, or a slashing relative youngster (Ruoff) who shows a bit of fire. And in the end, the combination of those approaches may be just what a team needs in the cauldron of competition. The lack of any one might cause a team in need of settling down or a kick in the pants might have resulted in fewer wins this year. But with each player providing a different piece of the emotional puzzle, West Virginia has been well-prepared to handle adversity in many forms. Twenty-five wins, and a trip to the NIT semifinals, should attest to that.


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