Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Best Game of the Year – So Far

Hype in sports is often manufactured. It is dished out in equal parts adulation and exaggeration. But if the weekly grind of hundreds of college basketball games does nothing, it dulls the hype machine. Rivalries get overlooked and sometimes the drama builds organically. Pittsburgh and West Virginia are separated by just 75 miles. They were separated by just one game in the Big East standings. A double bye in the Big East tournament may or may not have been on the line. Both teams were ranked. Both teams have the type of insane fans that can drive you crazy. (Let’s go Pitt! Let’s go Moun-Tain-Eers!)

But here with no Friday NBA games, ESPN neatly scheduled this game. It seemed innocent enough at first. Pittsburgh shot well early, but the quietly efficient West Virginia team imposed its will. With West Virginia leading by 7 with about a minute to go, it seemed over.

But for some reason, West Virginia doesn’t win by 7. West Virginia wins by 20 (see their high efficiency rating) or their games are decided on buzzer beaters. Maybe it is free throws. Maybe it is bad luck. But for whatever reason, that’s been the story of the Mountaineers for two years now. They either make it look easy, or it isn’t easy at all.

And in a heartbeat, this game wasn’t easy. After a questionable steal and possible step out of bounds, Ashton Gibbs hit a three pointer to send the game to overtime. Then Darryl “Truck” Bryant hit a buzzer beater to send the game to a second overtime. Then Travon Woodall hit a buzzer beater only to have the play waived off because the ball was in his hands. The game went to a third overtime.

At the end of regulation the student section had gone from sleepy to electric. Some premature exits had returned to their seats. But it wasn’t all good. Pittsburgh had seen its 91% FT shooter Gibbs miss a game sealing FT and Pittsburgh players were shown with towels on their heads. West Virginia players that had seen their late lead disappear were shown cursing and looking shocked on the sideline. But those same West Virginia players were pumping their fists moments later. Basically, if you live just west of the Appalachian Mountains, this became a game you really wanted.

And in the third overtime, it was decided. Pitt saw its 2nd and 3rd players foul out. The Panthers missed the next four shots. But just when it looked like West Virginia would pull away, they didn’t. Pitt kept crashing the boards and went to the line. And after a series of made free throws, the Panthers celebrated.

This is college basketball.