A Capital Night

I'll admit it. I didn't think WVU had much of a chance to knock off the Florida Gators in Charleston Tuesday night.

Now, I will say I did think West Virginia would be competitive in the game. I've seen enough Mountaineer practices and games this year to realize that 1) this coaching staff, which has an excellent mix of veteran presence and newcomer enthusiasm, knows what it is doing, and 2) the players, while still working to learn and evolve in the offensive and defensive systems, are playing hard, taking care of the ball, and doing enough little things right to put up a fight.

Still, before the game, I was theorizing that the rebounding margin might be as big as twenty boards -- Florida looks mighty impressive even in the pre-game shoot around. So, what happened?

Pretty much the same thing that's happened in every game this year. WVU hit a rough first half stretch and fell behind by ten points, but they didn't panic. That's an easy sentence to write, and it may not convey the importance of the thought behind it. A team composed of five freshmen and sophomores falls behind a top ten team by double digits. They have trouble simply getting the ball to half court, let alone getting off a good shot. They are giving up pounds and inches at almost every position. Yet, they don't freak out. That's amazing.

Second, they 'value the ball', in the words of head coach John Beilein. Even though they had a season high 14 turnovers against the Gators, that was still two less than they forced. Fewer turnovers yield extra shots. WVU took eight more shots than Florida, which proved to be one of the deciding factors in the contest.

Third, they play defense fundamentally, with foot and body position rather than reaching hands. Florida didn't shoot a free throw in the first half - a testimony in part to WVU's solid defensive play. The Mountaineers committed only three first half fouls.

So, was this WVU's biggest upset win in its long basketball history? My memory and experience certainly don't stretch back as far as Mountaineer historians like Tony Constantine or Mickey Furfari, but a quick poll of some other media members in attendance seemed to agree with my take. Given the circumstances of this program's position only eight months ago, this may well have been the biggest upset in West Virginia hoop history.

Now, by no stretch of the imagination is WVU ready to challenge for the Big East championship yet. West Virginia can't rest on their laurels, or they will get beaten just as they did at Duquesne last week. With the maturity and poise this team has shown under fire this year, though, I'm not really concerned about that happening. When the Mountaineers lose a game this year, it's going to be because they were simply outplayed -- not because they were out worked or unprepared.

One other thing that might be difficult to overcome is the sure-to-be heightened expectations of fans. A win over Florida makes matchups with Wofford and Wester Carolina look like child's play. That's not the case, as Florida's last two games (a win over #2 Kansas prior to their loss to WVU) prove.

West Virginia's basketball program will continue to grow and evolve, but there will be some big bumps along the way. Mixed in with those setbacks, however, will be games like last night's, where WVU provided two hours' worth of excitement and thrills for their fans. Don't miss the next one!

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