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Harris: Pitt loss pivotal for WVU

| Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Wellington Smith and the rest of his West Virginia teammates were about to wrap up a well-deserved, long-awaited road victory against Pitt last month.

The Mountaineers, up by seven points with only 50 seconds to play, seemed ready for the party to begin.

"People were walking out of the gym," recalled Smith, a senior forward.

WVU turned out the lights a little too early.

One team's great comeback became another team's monumental collapse -- as well as the impetus for a national championship run -- as the Mountaineers lost, 98-95, in three overtimes Feb. 12 at Petersen Events Center.

When West Virginia fans this think about their team advancing to the Final Four for the first time since 1959, they rarely think about the Mountaineers' loss to Pitt that turned their season around.

West Virginia was 19-5 following the Pitt game. WVU is now 31-6, winners of 10 consecutive and 12 of 13.

"We were in so many close games. I felt like the biggest loss we had was to Pitt," Smith said. "We thought that game was over, and it wasn't.

"That was the last straw."

Maybe if the Mountaineers had held on and beaten Pitt, they wouldn't have believed it necessary to re-dedicate their season to atoning for a painful loss to their biggest rival.

Maybe they would have straightened things out and made their historic run through the Big East Tournament and NCAA Tournament regardless.

I asked Huggins about the Pitt game Monday. An emotional man who lost an emotional game, he attempted to explain the loss in terms of missed free throws.

West Virginia made 26 of 37 free throws (70.3 percent). Pitt was 31 of 42 from the line (73.8 percent).

"We didn't make any free throws up there," Huggins said. "We've done a much better job of making free throws. By and large, we've done a great job of making free throws down the stretch.

"We have the kind of team we're going to play close games. We're not going to blow anybody out."

Huggins' politically correct response left me wanting more. Here's what Huggins said immediately following the Pitt loss:

"They couldn't have won the game without a lot of help from us."

That's the message Huggins delivered to his players.

Since accepting Huggins' words at face value while learning to take nothing for granted, the Mountaineers now deliver clutch plays as a habit and make big shots with confidence.

"The mentality comes from 'Hugs' and trickles down to the rest of the team," Smith said.

In a 68-66 overtime win at Villanova to end the regular season, WVU was 14 of 16 from the foul line after missing its first five attempts. The Mountaineers were 14 of 15 from the line against Georgetown in the Big East Tournament championship game.

WVU has converted 47 of 67 free throws (70.1 percent) in the second half of NCAA Tournament wins against Kentucky, Washington and Missouri.

The Mountaineers remain one of only four college basketball teams still standing, in part, because they extracted the best from the worst situation they encountered all season.

"That was a big turning point in our season," said sophomore Kevin Jones, who's been one of West Virginia's top clutch players in the postseason. "The Pitt game just clicked in our head. We can't let a lead like that go.

"It's definitely a different mindset. We're a different team now."

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