MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — No March memories will be made this year, but NCAA tournament history is full of memorable moments for Mountaineer basketball.
Given the shortage of current games to watch, now is the perfect time to look back at West Virginia’s top tournament showings.
Now we survive and advance to the best Sweet 16 games in West Virginia basketball history.
Unlike previous rounds, we aren’t limiting the choices to games that the Mountaineers won. After all, heartbreak is just as much a March emotion as joy.
4. NYU 82, West Virginia 81, OT (March 11, 1960) — Charlotte, N.C.
The final meaningful game of Jerry West’s Mountaineer career was a heartbreaker.
But by all accounts, it was an absolute classic basketball game that can’t be ignored.
West and West Virginia went into the tournament looking to finish what had eluded them by one point the year before — a national championship run.
NYU seemed an unlikely roadblock for that run. The Mountaineers crushed the Violets by 29 when the teams played at WVU Fieldhouse earlier in the season.
West’s 32 points in regulation appeared to have WVU on its way to a meeting with Duke in the regional final, but 5-foot-8 NYU guard Russ Cunningham drained a 30-foot set shot with 4 seconds remaining to send the game to overtime tied at 77.
With no shot clock, the underdog Violets were able to play stall ball for much of the overtime period, minimizing West’s advantage over them. The rules of the day also benefitted NYU in one more way — when Cunningham made a free throw to put his team up 82-79 with 8 seconds left, West Virginia had no way to tie the game outside of getting fouled while making a shot.
West finished with 34 points in his last meaningful hurrah as a Mountaineer. Satch Sanders, who would be a future NBA rival of West’s with the Celtics, scored 28 for NYU.
WVU would beat St. Joseph’s 106-100 in the regional consolation game.
3. West Virginia 65, Texas Tech 60 (March 25, 2005) — Albuquerque, N.M.
It says something about West Virginia’s 2005 tournament run that this was the least exciting game.
Way back before anyone thought of placing West Virginia and Texas Tech in the same conference, this was an unexpected clash of coaching styles. The seventh-seeded Mountaineers were led by John Beilein’s new-school approach that prominently featured a center launching threes. The sixth-seeded Red Raiders were the definition of old school, led by Indiana coach-in-exile Bob Knight.
Kevin Pittsnogle was the hero for West Virginia with 22 points, including a pair of critical free throws to extend the lead to 64-60 with 17.2 seconds left. Those free throws snapped a 5-0 Texas Tech run as the game appeared to be slipping away.
D’Or Fischer had a crucial block in the final minute, wiping out a potential game-tying Texas Tech layup with 52 seconds to go. That wild possession finally ended 22 seconds later when Patrick Beilein corraled a loose ball and called timeout before falling out of bounds in front of the Texas Tech bench.
West Virginia’s epic tournament run would end in the Elite Eight, but not before going punch-for-punch in a legendary showdown with Louisville.
2. Xavier 79, West Virginia 75, OT (March 27, 2008) — Phoenix, Ariz.
An old rival came back to haunt Bob Huggins in his first tournament run with West Virginia.
The Musketeers were crosstown foes to his teams at Cincinnati, but always took a backseat to the powerful Bearcats. This time, Xavier finally got even.
It got ugly early for the seventh-seeded Mountaineers, who entered the game after upsetting No. 2 Duke in the second round. No. 3 Xavier was up by as many as 18 midway through the first half as West Virginia repeatedly misfired from the field.
But the Mountaineers fought back, taking a lead on Da’Sean Butler’s bucket with 9:45 remaining. From there, it was a back-and-forth game down the wire.
Joe Alexander tied it up when he hit a shot while getting fouled with 14 seconds left. But Alexander missed the ensuing free throw, and the game went to overtime.
WVU built a 71-65 lead early in the extra session before the Musketeers roared back.
B.J. Raymond’s three-pointer put Xavier up with 1:18 to go. He then iced the game by hitting another as the shot clock expired with 30 seconds left, extending Xavier’s lead to four.
The heartbreaker denied the Mountaineers an Elite Eight matchup with a top-seeded UCLA team they were capable of beating. A year before, West Virginia beat the No. 2 Bruins 70-65 in Morgantown.
WVU reached the Final Four two years later, but that banner easily could have been joined by one from 2008 with a win over Xavier.
1. West Virginia 95, St. Joseph’s 92 (March 13, 1959) — Charlotte, N.C.
If not for this epic comeback, West Virginia’s first-ever Final Four appearance wouldn’t have come until 2010.
In an era with no shot clock or three-point shot, St. Joseph’s led the Mountaineers by 18 with just 13 minutes to play. As difficult as a comeback from that deficit would be in the modern era, it seems downright implausible given the rules of the time.
But comebacks were West Virginia’s modus operandi in 1959, with the Mountaineers winning 14 games in which they trailed in the second half.
As you’d expect, it was Jerry West who led the way, scoring 21 of his 36 points in the game’s final nine minutes. But the single biggest play of the game belonged to Ronnie Retton, who had all of four points.
The 5-foot-7, 150-pound Retton managed to pickpocket the Hawks as they attempted to set up the game-winning bucket on an inbounds pass in the final seconds. Retton drove for a layup that provided the game’s final margin.
West Virginia went on to beat Boston University and Louisville to reach the national championship game.