Into the elite: Ranking West Virginia’s Elite Eight appearances

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.

We will provide a round-by-round synopsis of the best games.

After starting with WVU’s four most memorable first-round games, we delved into a much more memorable set of second-round performances. From there, we went into West Virginia’s most dramatic Sweet 16 games — both the thrilling and the heartbreaking.

There have only been three Elite Eight games in West Virginia history, but every one of them was worthy of revisiting.

Here’s a look back at each time the Mountaineers reached the last step on the road to the Final Four.

3. West Virginia 86, Boston University 82 (March 14, 1959) — Charlotte, N.C.

The theme of the 1959 season played out once again as West Virginia clinched its first Final Four appearance.

Mountaineers fall behind. Jerry West does amazing things. Mountaineers win.

West Virginia trailed the Terriers with 12 minutes remaining before West went on a personal 10-0 run to put the Mountaineers up 71-67 just four minutes later. WVU would not relinquish that lead the rest of the way.

West finished the game with 33 points. The win marked West Virginia’s 14th second-half comeback in 18 games.

The Mountaineers advanced to the Final Four, where they would face Louisville on its home floor in the national semifinals.

(If you haven’t already done so — watch the above archived footage of the game. There’s no sound, but it is a remarkable piece of film featuring some jarring differences in how basketball was played decades ago. As in, people taking granny shots from the free-throw line in a game to reach the Final Four.)

2. Louisville 93, West Virginia 85, OT (March 26, 2005) — Albuquerque, N.M.

The Pit was the site of one of the greatest college basketball games of all-time — North Carolina State’s stunning championship win over Houston — and this showdown of Big East rivals sent way out west belongs in the same league.

West Virginia set a school record with 18 three-pointers, though that barrage somehow did not end up being enough against the equally red-hot Cardinals. The Mountaineers finished the game shooting 55.3 percent from the field compared to Louisville’s 55.2 percent.

Forced to abandon his zone defense for a press at halftime, Rick Pitino watched Louisville fall behind by 20 before finally rallying. The Cardinals finally tied the game on a Larry O’Bannon with 38 seconds left in regulation.

It was on the ensuing possession that John Beilein may have pushed the wrong button for the first time since the beginning of West Virginia’s run through the Big East tournament.

With absolutely nothing happening in WVU’s half-court offense, Beilein still eschewed calling a timeout to set up a final shot. The Mountaineers ended up settling for a poor J.D. Collins shot that was easily rejected by Louisville’s Brandon Jenkins.

The first half of overtime was close even, but Louisville finished the game on a 9-2 run that kept West Virginia from reaching its first Final Four since West led the way.

Despite the defeat, the trajectory of WVU basketball in the 15 years since its 2005 Big East and NCAA tournament successes show that this was the most significant March in modern program history.

1. West Virginia 73, Kentucky 65 (March 28, 2010) — Syracuse, N.Y.

A decade later, one simply looks at the names in the box score and wonders “How did that happen?”

Kentucky was loaded with eight future NBA players on its roster, including a pair of future All-Stars in John Wall and Boogie Cousins as well as a future all-defensive team player in Eric Bledsoe.

West Virginia had two guys who would appear in the NBA — Devin Ebanks and Kevin Jones — for fewer than 100 combined games.

But the future did not matter on a day where the Mountaineers were the better team — or at least they were after spotting the Wildcats an 11-0 lead in a game that began looking like it would develop into an expected Kentucky blowout win.

Joe Mazzulla was the best player on the floor, scoring a career-high 17 points to lead West Virginia to its first Final Four in 51 years. He was only starting because Truck Bryant had broken his foot in practice earlier in the week.

Da’Sean Butler played all 40 minutes for the Mountaineers, scoring a team-high 18 points while hitting four threes.

Kentucky was a miserable 12.5 percent (4 of 32) from three-point range and 55.2 percent (16 of 29) from the free-throw line.

There might have been more pure excitement in West Virginia’s previous two Elite Eight appearances, but the magnitude of what the Mountaineers pulled off against the Wildcats makes this WVU’s greatest postseason victory of any round.

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