A Shot At Glory

NEW YORK -- Tonight, West Virginia has a chance to accomplish something no basketball team has at the school in almost three decades: winning a postseason conference tournament. It's an opportunity players relish, both for what it would mean for them -- and for the joy they know it would bring fans back in the Mountain State.

The last time a WVU hoops squad brought home a conference trophy, it was a member of the the Atlantic 10 Conference. Gale Catlett's 1983-84 team beat Rutgers, Temple, St. Bonaventure to claim the league crown.

To contrast, the Mountaineers will have to go through a Georgetown team that would claim the Big East tournament trophy for a record eighth time with a win.

Across the board, players expressed a desire to hang a championship banner in the Coliseum for fans that haven't experienced one for a long time. In fact, none of the current players were even born when Catlett's squad won the A-10 tournament for the second time in his first six years as coach.

"With the passion Mountaineer fans have, it's not just important to us. It's important to them," said reserve guard Joe Mazzulla. "[For] everything they go through to watch us play and the passion they have, we really want to win this for them. It's for ourselves, but it's more for them because of the love they've shown."

Added sophomore forward Devin Ebanks, "We know that's a special thing. It would be the first championship banner that they'll have. We take that to heart and have a lot of pride. We know if we win, it will be a special moment for all of West Virginia."

To make that a reality, WVU will have to deal with a Georgetown team that looks like a different beast entirely from the one it beat 81-68 in Morgantown on Senior Night less than two weeks ago.

That is due in no small part to the return of Austin Freeman, who missed that game with an illness that was, at that time, mysterious. The forward was diagnosed with diabetes shortly thereafter, and has come back with a vengeance.

He had 12 points and eight rebounds in his team's 80-57 semifinal win over Marquette on Friday night. He had 18 in the Hoyas' upset win over top-seeded Syracuse in the quarterfinals.

"He's just the engine that makes them go," said Mountaineer forward Wellington Smith of Freeman. "With that said, they're a different team. They can kick it out with [Greg] Monroe and try to find an open shooter."

"When they were down at our place, they weren't really making shots. We took them out of a lot of things. Freeman can get off the bounce, and it's something we're really going to have to worry about."

While the scouting report for their first match-up with GU included Freeman, as it was thought he would play until the day before the game, West Virginia's players didn't actually have to deal with him on the floor.

Thus, it could be dangerous to make too many assumptions about what the No. 8 seeded squad will do Saturday night based off what it did the first time around.

"You have to forget the whole thing," said Ebanks. "We're not in the regular season anymore. We're in the tournament, and people play harder and in a different way in the tournament."

"We have to forget what happened a couple weeks ago, come in here with focused heads and come in ready to play."

Freeman's play is only made better by the fact that point guard Chris Wright is playing perhaps his basketball of the season as well.

He was a dominant force in the quarterfinal upset of Syracuse, scoring 27 points. He was solid once more in the semifinals, adding 15 more.

"The way Wright is playing right now is just amazing," said Smith, who, like the rest of the WVU players, got to watch part of the Hoyas' semifinal game from the stands at the Garden before heading back to the locker room for final preparations for the Notre Dame game. "He's creating a lot of shot opportunities for other people."

All of this is to say nothing of perhaps Georgetown's most dynamic player, Greg Monroe. The latest in the long line of talented post players in D.C., the center had 23 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists in the semifinals.

As those three players go, so go the Hoyas. But trying to actually stop them all is no easy task, both because of their own individual talents -- and the fact that their physical builds and skill-sets are so different from one another.

As it almost always is for the Mountaineers, the key to victory will be playing solid defense and limiting extra opportunities.

"They've got that three-headed monster with Freeman, Monroe and Wright," said Mazzulla. "We're going to obviously have to contain them. It's no secret what they do -- it's a lot of back-cuts, a Princeton-style offense. I think Wright is playing very well, so Truck and I will really have to contain him defensively. We're going to have to rebound and make shots."

"They're just playing good team basketball," said Ebanks. "Greg and Chris are just stepping up, as they should be. We have to stop those two and Freeman. We can't let them get started. If we do that, we should be able to beat them."

And if West Virginia earns a second victory over GU, it will claim a Big East championship in basketball for the first time.

While that serves mainly to improve the team's seeding for the upcoming NCAA Tournament, players know that a conference title -- something Kentucky coach John Calipari called "meaningless" a few weeks ago -- would be anything but that for a fan-base that has gone without a championship since the Reagan administration.

"It would mean everything, honestly," said point guard Truck Bryant.

"The Big East championship would definitely mean a lot. We want to bring that back to Morgantown. The fans have been great to us, and we just want to do them a favor, do something great and hang a banner."

"We came to New York with one goal: to win a championship. We've got the chance to [tonight]."

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