Within Reach

West Virginia finally got the NCAA resume-building win over Pitt that it needed, but it can't afford a stumble in the season finale at St. John's. What will the Mountaineers have to do to parlay the 76-62 beatdown of the Panthers into their long-pursued NCAA bid?

Previous conference games against Georgetown, Pitt and Villanova all offered opportunities for WVU to make its case for an NCAA at-large bid, but in each contest West Virginia fell just short, sometimes agonizingly so, of getting the win it needed. The Big Monday win over Pitt in front of a national television audience finally put WVU atop the plateau it had been clawing to reach, but that's still a step away from where it needs to be. A win over St. John's would, in almost any event, seal that bid to the NCAA tournament, but there's no guarantee that the Mountaineers will waltz into Madison Square Garden and snare a win. WVU has been uneven on the road, to say the least, during the 2007-08 season, and must find the formula to success on the road, as it has likely played its last home game this year.

So, what is the key for West Virginia this Saturday? According to the hottest Mountaineer, it's concentration on the goal.

"It puts you in a tunnel vision mindset," junior forward Joe Alexander said following his second consecutive 32-point performance, which cam against the Panthers. "You've worked hard to do what you need to do, and you're not about to let it slip away no matter what the circumstances."

The challenge is probably more difficult than it sounds. Although the Red Storm are just 5-12 in the conference, they still could be playing for the final spot in the Big East tournament, depending on what Providence and DePaul do in their final two league games. But even if the Johnnies are shut out by Saturday, they will still be getting a big emotional lift from the year-long celebration of their 100 years of basketball, which will culminate with the noon contest with WVU. Playing at Madison Square Garden is also a big deal for St. John's, and will certainly provide them with an extra boost as they hope to close out their 100th regular season with a win.

So, with that in mind, a little tunnel vision from the Mountaineers might go a long way, and help in more ways than one. West Virginia must match any added emotion the Red Storm brings to the game early on, and also must find a way to play consistently away from home. Success there would certainly lay the groundwork for the Big East tournament next week, and for the NCAAs beyond.

If anyone could benefit more from such focus, it would be Alexander, who continues to show improvement. He knows that he has not finished his climb up the basketball education ladder, but if he can play as well as he has in West Virginia's past two games, the Mountaineers will almost assuredly make some noise in the Big East tournament, and lock up that coveted NCAA spot.

"There's so much more I have to learn that it's ridiculous," he said following the Pitt win. "I feel like I've just scratched the surface of what [Coach Huggins] is trying to teach me. But we are definitely not done yet. With this win and what we have done in the past month, we've helped ourselves a lot"

Although Alexander and his teammates certainly needed a bit of a break after a three games in six days stretch (the Mountaineers had four days between Monday's Pitt contest and Saturday's St. john's matchup), Alexander was eager to show that he and his teammates weren't going to waste this final opportunity.

"Sitting here right now, I am focused on St. John's. I am ready to play."

The proof, of course, will come on Saturday at noon, but after receiving some harsh lessons, it looks as if West Virginia is finally in the position to climb out of the hole it dug for itself in the early part of the season. That the Mountaineers could do so on the court where it will open Big East tournament play just four days latter would be a fitting last step.

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