MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — After two MRIs, a string of absentee practices, and legions of doubters suddenly wondering whether NBA ambitions were interfering with his college team’s mission, Sagaba Konate reclaimed his rightful place Saturday.
At the rim.
Seven blocks earned him the West Virginia career record and the satisfaction of beating Pitt.
“They’re not going to come here and beat us — that ain’t happening,” Konate told me after the Mountaineers prevailed 69-59.
So what if the Backyard Brawl took a hiatus? Whether you’re from West Virginia or West Africa, you felt the extra juice flowing for this game.
Nevermind how preseason voters slotted Pitt at the bottom of the ACC, or that West Virginia has endured some miserable stretches during its runup to Big 12 play. Such context mattered zilch when Pitt’s 6-foot-2 Sidy N’Dir hammered a left-handed dunk over Konate midway through the first half.
N’Dir retreated downcourt grinning back at Konate. This made Hulk very angry.
At that juncture, Konate had two points, zero rebounds and zero blocks. By afternoon’s completion, his stat line swelled to 16/9/7.
It sure looked as though last year’s Sags was back.
“That’s the Sags we all know,” guard Beetle Bolden said. “That’s the guy who can go back there and change shots, block shots and grab shots and do all the et cetera.”
For Konate the “et cetera” is the gravy that comes from his game’s main entree, which is making dribble-drivers leery. Then there are the ones who should’ve been leery, such as Pitt’s four-star freshman Trey McGowens, who cupped the ball on a dunk attempt but encountered Konate’s two-handed stuff.
“The one Sags caught with two hands up there was big-time,” said West Virginia coach Bob Huggins.
Konate relished the moment, egging on the Mountaineers’ student section. When McGowens tried again a few possessions later, Konate was once again a roadblock at the rim.
WVU’s junior center possesses a fluid jumper and soft touch, yet it’s the hardness he brings on defense that ignites the team.
“Like Fran Frischilla said yesterday, everybody in college basketball a year ago was talking about Sags for one reason — his shot-blocking ability,” Huggins said. “He’s shooting it much better, but his claim to fame is blocking shots.”
The Mali native who played his high school ball within an hour of Pitt’s campus — and would have signed with the Panthers if not for the love shown by WVU — nearly missed this game entirely. Only an animated performance at Friday’s practice convinced Huggins that Konate was ready.
Even so, Konate didn’t start Saturday’s game, a bi-product of sitting out Thursday’s practice with knee soreness that continues to be a sore spot between the staff and the player.
Asked what two MRIs of the knee revealed, Konate pointed only to his head.
“There’s nothing wrong. It’s just a mental challenge,” he said.
Perhaps facing Pitt was precisely the the challenge Konate needed this week to renew his focus, to reveal his old self. He recalled first sensing the Backyard Brawl’s intensity last year in Pittsburgh when “our fans took over the arena up there.”
In the rematch at the WVU Coliseum, he made sure the outcome was the same.
Konate punctuated the victory with two late-game dunks, one after stretching above the backboard square to palm an alley-oop pass that even Bolden thought was too tall.
“I saw it was kind of high,” Konate said, “so I just jumped extra.”
Through nine games it’s clear West Virginia needs all the “extra” he can give.