Rivalry or not, modern edition of West Virginia-Pitt did not lack intensity

MORGANTOWN, W. Va. — It sounded like a rivalry.

Well before the ball was tipped, Pitt players were loudly advised to dine on fecal matter by the West Virginia student section. On the off chance the Panthers forgot, the chants popped up again every five minutes or so.

“We had seen videos. We had heard about it,” said Panthers freshman guard Trey McGowens. “But you can’t know what you’re walking into until you get there.”

It had all the chippiness one would expect from something billed as the Backyard Brawl. Two double-technical fouls were called before the game even hit the eight-minute mark.

“It was as physical a game as I’ve ever been involved in,” said fellow Pitt freshman guard Xavier Johnson.

But according to the participants, the jury remains out on whether Pitt-West Virginia has been fully re-ignited. The history is there — they have now played 186 times on the basketball court — but Saturday marked Pitt’s first trip to WVU Coliseum since 2012.

The teams only began renewing acquaintances last season. And Pitt’s three top scorers in this 69-59 loss to the Mountaineers — Johnson (21 points), McGowens (18) and Au’Diese Toney (6) — weren’t on the roster for last year’s meeting.

The hatred that has been percolating between fans for generations hasn’t had enough time to infect the current group of players.

“Honestly, I think it’s going to take a while before West Virginia-Pitt becomes what it was,” said Mountaineers coach Bob Huggins. “There’s been a long time in-between games. I think it’s still a rivalry because it’s close enough for both fans to get to either place. But it’s not what it was.”

It certainly showed signs of getting there in the two years remaining on the current contract between the schools.

Though the two early technicals on each side might be attributed to a pair of teams eager to put ugly losses behind them — West Virginia was lackluster in a 56-46 dud against Florida, and Pitt dropped a guarantee game to Niagara — the edge seemed to carry beyond that.

Even after game officials made it clear they weren’t going to abide extracurricular activity, there was no shortage of yapping or stare-downs between the sides. The teams combined for 49 fouls, with Pitt whistled for a season-high 26.

“It’s a rivalry. They’ve been playing this game forever,” said first-year Pitt coach Jeff Capel, who picked up a technical of his own in the second half. “There was a lot of emotion in the game.”

For Johnson, who has yet to play a game against a conference opponent, the experience was difficult to quantify.

“To be honest, it didn’t feel like a rivalry. But I really don’t know,” Johnson said. “I guess it’s a rivalry, so I’m going to treat it as a rivalry.”

West Virginia point guard Beetle Bolden acknowledged it as much, saying that the intensity amounted to playing a conference game.

“That’s what a Big 12 game is going to be like,” Bolden said. “They’re up there with a Big 12 team.”

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