MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Monday night was supposed to mark the conclusion of the 2020 college basketball season.
Life had other plans, so we are left to imagine how this year’s Final Four might have looked. And, of course, we can look back at Final Fours past.
West Virginia has been there twice — 1959 and 2010. The Mountaineers would have been a long shot to make their third trip this season, though NCAA tournament experience would have been helpful to a team that will go into next season with realistic aspirations of making such a run.
To conclude our round-by-round look back at the Mountaineers’ history in the NCAA tournament, we’re revisiting those games.
We began with WVU’s four most memorable first-round games, before delving 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. It was much the same story for the Elite Eight.
3. Duke 78, West Virginia 57 (April 3, 2010) — Indianapolis
The nightmare finish to West Virginia’s dream run to the Final Four.
The second-seeded Mountaineers cruised to their first Final Four in 51 years in fairly comfortable fashion, including their upset of top-seeded Kentucky in the Elite Eight.
A 10-game winning streak that included WVU’s lone Big East tournament title was snapped by Duke, which never trailed. The game also produced the most iconically painful image in WVU basketball history — Bob Huggins consoling the injured Da’Sean Butler, who was lost for the game with 9 minutes remaining.
Already without fellow guard Truck Bryant, who was injured in practice before the Sweet 16 game against Washington, the Mountaineers had no chance of mounting a double-digit comeback against the Blue Devils.
Duke would go on to win the national title, escaping with the 71-69 win when Butler star Gordon Hayward’s half-court heave bounced high off the back iron.
2. West Virginia 94, Louisville 79 (March 20, 1959) — Louisville, Ky.
Louisville upset Kentucky and Michigan State in back-to-back regional games, providing the Cardinals with the rare opportunity to play a Final Four game on its home floor. Against Jerry West, there was no such thing as home-court advantage.
West blitzed Louisville with 38 points and 15 rebounds. More than 60 years later, it remains the sixth-best scoring performance in Final Four history for non-consolation games.
Comeback kids for most of the ’59 season with 14 come-from-behind second-half wins, the Mountaineers were barely tested by Louisville, building a lead of as many as 23 points.
West Virginia even seemed to get a favorable draw in the championship game. The Mountaineers avoided Cincinnati superstar Oscar Robertson, whose Bearcats were eliminated by a relatively unheralded Cal squad in the other semifinal.
1. Cal 71, West Virginia 70 (March 21, 1959) — Louisville, Ky.
The most exciting game in West Virginia’s Final Four history — and also the most painful.
This one was a roller coaster. WVU jumped to a quick 10-point lead, but trailed by six at halftime. That deficit ballooned to 13 before the ’59 Mountaineers went on another of their patented comeback attempts facilitated by their pressing defense.
Cal center Darrall Imhoff — five inches taller than anyone on West Virginia’s roster — tipped in his own miss with 17 seconds remaining, extending the Bears’ lead to 71-68. That made it a two-possession game in the days before the three-pointer was even a figment of the imagination.
The Mountaineers were able to cut the margin to 1, but weren’t able to get a shot off before the buzzer after a missed Cal free throw with 2 seconds remaining.
A crucial factor? West was in foul trouble for most of the game, and had to play the final 15 minutes with four fouls.
West was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player despite the defeat — he scored 28 in the championship game — but didn’t take much pride in that feat.
“It was certainly a bitter time for me,” West told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in 2010.