- The Washington Times - Monday, March 21, 2005

They gave us an NCAA tournament game to embrace late Saturday night, the basketball teams of West Virginia and Wake Forest.

They gave us the raw emotion of March and one big shot after another and two overtime periods that drained the principals.

They gave us another reason to believe in the wholesomeness and fairy tale of college basketball. They gave us 50 minutes of twists and turns that made all the scandals go away, if only for one night.

The Mountaineers refused to believe in the national championship aspirations of the Demon Deacons. They refused to accept the grandeur of the Atlantic Coast Conference. And they refused to back down after falling behind by 13 points in the first 20 minutes.

The Mountaineers believed in the possibilities on this night in Cleveland, as they all believe but so few see it through to the end.

The Mountaineers wrested control of the game late in regulation and again in the first overtime, only to be denied by the 3-pointers of the Deacons.

This was a back-and-forth beauty. This was a keeper. This was the best of March, as if drawn up on a chalkboard by the selection committee and dispatched directly to the ratings-obsessed executives of CBS.

Theirs was the story line that pulls America to the event each year. It is the old but uplifting story line of the underdog rising up against the national power, of one team forgetting its modest place in college basketball.

This was Mike Gansey’s story, too. He was the gritty role player who stepped to the fore in the two overtimes, when he scored 19 of his 29 points and became somebody of March.

Gansey reflects the can-do spirit of the Mountaineers. He is a little too slow, a little too nondescript, not enough of this or that, but just enough of an overachiever to overcome his deficiencies and trump a team led by a point guard, Chris Paul, destined to be a lottery pick in the NBA Draft in June if he leaves school early.

One minute Gansey was just another name in the program, and the next, with players fouling out at an alarming rate, he was sinking shots from all over the place, punching his team’s ticket.

This completed a resurrection of sorts after Gansey found himself in the underbelly of college basketball at St. Bonaventure two seasons ago. An ex-teammate admitted to school on a welding certificate led to the usual outcry, and Gansey, rightly, transferred to a healthier environment.

It all crystallized with the Mountaineers clutching the implausible confirmation of a Sweet 16 berth.

As recently as March 5, following a loss to Seton Hall in the last game of the regular season, the Mountaineers were just another 18-9 team wondering where it stood with the selection committee.

But then, as these stories so often unfold, the Mountaineers put together this crazy run in the Big East tournament, beating Providence, Boston College and Villanova on successive days before falling to Syracuse in the final.

And now, after the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament, the Mountaineers are among the last 16 teams in the field for the first time since 1998 and only the fourth time in school history, and their mascot has every reason to fire his gun in the air.

This moment is especially precious for a state that is rarely seen on the national athletic stage and lacks the identifying mark of a big-league sports team.

The Mountaineers are college basketball royalty of yesteryear, of the days of Hot Rod Hundley and Jerry West, too long ago to be relevant to today’s youth. They are mostly a basketball afterthought in the Big East Conference, usually competitive but hardly in the company of Connecticut and Syracuse, or even Pittsburgh and Boston College.

But they have a reason to shout today.

Their ascendancy is “almost heaven.”

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