MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Considering it wrote a $40,000 check just to secure an invitation to the College Basketball Invitational, West Virginia wanted to get its money’s worth Wednesday night.
Ultimately the outcome proved worth the price of admission, thanks to a late 22-2 run that dispatched Grand Canyon and set up a quarterfinal showdown against (peaks at the bracket) Coastal Carolina. More than survive-and-advance, the CBI is about survive-and-Google with so many unfamiliar schools in the field.
Utah Valley was a junior college a quarter-century ago.
California Baptist? I thought there was literally one California Baptist, an accountant living near Loma Linda.
The Grand Canyon team that visited the Coliseum has been a full-fledged Division I member for only two seasons, meaning the mere act of boarding a charter flight had the Antelopes excited. (“Our president stepped up,” noted GCU coach Dan Majerle.)
For 30-plus minutes, the boys from Phoenix threatened to make West Virginia’s CBI sojourn a one-and-done experience. That is until Chase Harler snapped a 51-51 tie with a 3-pointer from the wing. Then Harler sank two free throws, and then he fired an outlet pass to Jermaine Haley on a runout. By the time Harler shook free for another 3, the Mountaineers led 71-53 and were on their way to win No. 15.
Of course their ledger is counterbalanced by 20 losses, though WVU fans understand the record is no longer the point of this postseason exercise. It’s about generating game reps and promoting chemistry so that next season leads the Mountaineers into the NCAAs as opposed to a tournament sponsored by the firm aiming to end erectile dysfunction. (A different kind of one shining moment, to be sure.)
Winning begets more games, more practices and more momentum for an offseason in which some of these young fragile-looking bodies must add meat.
“Our goal is to win this tournament,” said point guard Jordan McCabe, himself a skinny freshman. After shooting 2-of-10, he emerged from the postgame locker room to spend a half-hour shooting 3s with the help of a team manager.
“Every day the goal is to get a little bit better,” he said.
Haley scored 24 points, with nine of his 11 baskets coming at the rim. He attacked relentlessly in transition and used his 6-7 frame to post up in halfcourt sets. You’d have to rewatch his early-season games to fully comprehend how drastically the passive bystander has changed his demeanor.
And West Virginia has modified its game plan by becoming multi-faceted.
For an extended stretch of the Big 12 round-robin, Derek Culver resembled the only offensive player worth watching. Yet in the Mountaineers’ past three wins, he shot 7-of-24 and averaged 6.3 points. Harler and Lamont West, juniors who may or may not be part of next season’s plans, were in double figures — as was freshman Emmitt Matthews, who certainly projects as a nice piece for the future.
The future is being built, at least partially, on this self-financed CBI run. The crowd of 5,313 was West Virginia’s smallest of the season, though at $10 a head, still large enough to cover the $40K buy-in.
Not exactly the thrill of March Madness inside this arena. But no buyer’s remorse either.