MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — By the time West Virginia and Florida hook up Tuesday night at New York’s Madison Square Garden for the Jimmy V Classic, the Gators will have had six days off to prepare.
On none of those days, will Florida assistant and former Mountaineers standout Darris Nichols take a moment to discuss with any Florida player about what it’s like to play in the World’s Most Famous Arena.
“Kids today don’t really want to hear about that stuff,” Nichols said. “I really think that’s something they have to experience for themselves. I’m not sure there is much you can say that can fully prepare them for that moment.”
If there is anyone who knows a little something about playing under the bright lights of the big city, it is Nichols, who went 7-4 at MSG during his college career.
Those 11 games covered some of the greatest triumphs, as well as some of the most heartbreaking moments in West Virginia’s basketball history.
Included in those 11 games:
— Nichols was a freshman when the Mountaineers upset both Boston College and Villanova to reach the Big East tournament finals.
— A year later, West Virginia blew a seven-point halftime lead and lost to Pitt, 68-57.
— In the Big East quarterfinals as a junior, Louisville’s Edger Sosa went coast-to-coast in the final seconds of regulation to help the Cardinals send the game into overtime. Louisville won in double overtime, 82-71.
— Nichols’ senior year, which was his first under Bob Huggins, saw Joe Alexander famously dunk over Stanley Robinson in the Big East quarterfinals. WVU beat No. 15 UConn 78-72 to advance to the semifinals and Nichols scored 13 points.
— For Nichols, his defining moment in the Garden would be a flashback to his junior season when he hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to beat Mississippi State in the NIT semifinals.
“Every now and then I think about it,” Nichols said. “It’s been so long ago now. It’s one of those things that when you go back to Madison Square Garden, you reminisce. I’m pretty sure when we play West Virginia, I’ll be thinking about it.
“The whole thing about the shot was there wasn’t really high definition TV back then, so when you watch the highlight now, it looks really bad. It makes you feel really old.”
The Mountaineers had earned a No. 1 seed in the NIT after being denied an at-large birth into the 2007 NCAA tournament.
And what set up Nichols’ game-winner was him actually missing a 3-pointer seconds earlier that barely grazed the rim and went out of bounds off a Mississippi State player with 2.1 seconds remaining.
“I look at the shot from a coaching standpoint now,” Nichols said. “I missed a shot a few seconds earlier, and if Mississippi State had just boxed out, we wouldn’t have had a chance to take that last shot. They would have won the game.”
With the Bulldogs leading 62-60, then-West Virginia coach John Beilein called a timeout to set up Nichols’ game-winner.
“It’s funny, because Coach Beilein actually got that play from a coaching clinic that he went to the summer before the season started,” Nichols said. “If you watch the play, Frank Young and I were older guys and had some gamesmanship to us. We told each other to signal to each other to make it look like we were going to cross, but we weren’t going to cross at all.”
Nichols believes Mississippi State was expecting Young, who hit a school-record 117 3-pointers that season, to take the final shot.
“With the way Frank shot the ball that year, everybody probably would expect him to take the shot,” he said.
Nichols ran to the corner in front of the WVU bench, where Alex Ruoff found him with the inbounds pass. Nichols launched the 3-pointer at the buzzer that wasn’t confirmed until minutes later after referees examined replays to make sure the attempt was indeed behind the line.
“My freshman year, I had a bad habit of always stepping on the 3-point line,” Nichols said. “So, they were always long 2-point tries instead of 3-point shots. Beilein was always on me about that. When I took that shot in the Garden. I didn’t know if it was a 2 or a 3. I was praying I had gone back far enough while they were reviewing it.”
Two days later, the Mountaineers survived Young’s foul trouble and beat Clemson 78-73 for the NIT title. Then-freshman Da’Sean Butler added 20 points in what was a sign of things to come in his career.
Days later, Beilein was off to coach at Michigan. The rumors about Beilein’s departure were already circulating before West Virginia played the Bulldogs.
“You know what was crazy, and I guess it was just a different time back then, but while the NIT was going on, I had never heard those rumors,” Nichols said. “There was no Twitter back then. The only way you would really hear it back then was by watching ESPN or really paying attention. All we were doing was running around New York being a bunch of college kids. We really had no idea that it was going on.”
These days, Nichols is enjoying his days as an assistant under Florida coach Mike White.
The Gators (4-3) have struggled against good competition, with losses against Florida State, Butler and Oklahoma.
In 2017, Nichols was part of Florida’s run to the Elite Eight, which ended with a 77-70 loss to South Carolina at — of all places — Madison Square Garden.
“I think the cool thing about playing in New York is I know the West Virginia fans will travel and I’ll get to see people I haven’t seen in a long time,” Nichols said. “They’ll be some people there who helped me during my career and it will be great to see them all again.”