It seemed different in Morgantown, but wasn’t
MORGANTOWN - At 2:24 p.m. Tuesday, WVU guard Terry Henderson stood in an empty Coliseum working on free throws with a friend or team manager.
It was a good sign for the Mountaineer faithful. At the end of the 2011-12 season, Gonzaga, the visitors later Tuesday evening, chopped up WVU 77-54 in the NCAA tournament in Pittsburgh. At the beginning of last season, the Zags put an even worse beating on the Mountaineers by 85-50 in Spokane, Wash.
I remember both vividly. Was at both. So I had to see the final chapter. Would WVU finally get over the hump this season after close losses to Virginia Tech, Wisconsin and, in the end, Missouri? Or would it be Beatdown, Part III? (Add a Roman numeral or two if we're talking solely about West Virginia coach Bob Huggins. When Huggins was coaching Cincinnati, his Bearcats were playing Gonzaga in an NCAA tournament game. Both Huggins and Bearcats radio announcer Chuck Machock were tossed out by official Mike Kitts.)
It seemed something was different Tuesday. There was Henderson, working on his game early in the day, starting. There was former Mountaineer coach Gale Catlett, who seemingly has been missing in action since resigning in 2001, sitting to the left of press row. (He was there to help the school honor ex-WVU standout Dale Blaney.) There was Da'Sean Butler. And even an actual, decent, if not spectacular, crowd showed. The attendance: 9,350.
In the end, though, the only thing that was different was the margin of Gonzaga's victory. It was not 23. It was not 35. It was four, 80-76.
WVU has now lost 14 straight and 18 of 21 to Top 25 teams. The last Mountaineer victory over a Top 25 team was Jan. 7, 2012 at home against Georgetown.
Yes, another one.
I swear, though, in the first half, we saw something different. Gonzaga, as always, looked poised, but missed uncharacteristically, to the tune of 38.2 percent shooting (30 percent from 3-point range). The Mountaineers had some spark, especially Eron Harris, who had 18 FIRST-HALF points. The hosts had but one turnover.
Huggins even seemed to be combating Gonzaga coach Mark Few with a player who would fit nicely in Spokane: Nathan Adrian. The Morgantown High product gave WVU a different look by trapping a Zag in the corner, blocking a shot and hitting a trey from the perimeter.
In the second half, Henderson, who seems to have his hops back, jammed on a follow of a Devin Williams airball. Juwan Staten got the roll on a drive.
Four WVU guards and Remi Dibo? No problem. The Mountaineers were up by 10 at the 16:08 mark.
Then we saw the familiar sight. Piece by piece, step by step, West Virginia began to crumble. On this night, Gary Browne was the inverted spark with a dribble into the arms of David Stockton. He missed shots. He was called for blocking.
Then Kevin Pangos took over. One trey. Then another. Then another. Soon, at 2:25 left, Gonzaga was up by 8. A WVU rally fell short.
The Mountaineers lost to a decent team on its schedule.
It lost to another Top 25 team.
And for a while, it seemed something was different. The last time we saw these teams, the big news was Boston College transfer Matt Humphrey was starting for WVU in place of Keaton Miles. Both are gone. The rest of the starters were Staten, Jabarie Hinds, Deniz Kilicli and Aaric Murray. All but Staten are gone.
The team now plays better. But the song, or at least the results, remains the same.
It must be infuriating for Mountaineer fans. Gonzaga plays in the northwest in a 6,000-seat arena. It does not have a sweet Coliseum, like WVU. It probably doesn't have a future Hall of Fame coach, like WVU. Yet it beats WVU on the road and whips it at home and at a neutral site.
Which has to be disheartening for the school's followers.
It reminds me of the Tuesday Gazette news headline. The one that said interim school president E. Gordon Gee plans to maintain WVU's momentum.
In the major sports, first some has to be established.
Reach Mitch Vingle at 304-348-4827, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at twitter.com/MitchVingle.