It's Tuesday, January 25, 2005, and the West Virginia Mountaineers have just suffered an ill-fated fifth straight loss to the UConn Huskies by the tally of 68-58 inside their home dwellings of the WVU Coliseum. The 'Eers are 11-6, and spiraling after an impressive 10-0 start to the season.
The pressure to win is thickening under John Beilein's skin. With two dismal, mediocre seasons under his belt, the coach who took the Richmond Spiders and Canisius Golden Griffins to the NCAA Tournament is finding out that life inside the nation's best basketball conference is as imposing as advertised.
The losses? Many weren't close. Smacked by Villanova 84-46 in Philly. Blasted by Boston College 73-53 at home. And now, this double-digit drubbing by the Huskies. That 10-0 start looked like nothing more than a mirage or a bringer of false hope. A fluke, you could say.
Things could hardly get any worse for the Mountaineers, it seemed. With March steadfast approaching, they were in desperate need of pulling themselves out of the ferocious fire they plunged into.
The Mountaineers were able to end their skid the following Saturday with a four-point win over the Providence Friars in Rhode Island, but awaiting them next was the team that had a Mount Everest amount of hype surrounding them. The Boston College Eagles were due to meet West Virginia on the first day of February.
This was one of the best Eagle teams in program history. Heading into this clash, BC was unbeaten at 18-0 after winning by 15 over the Brandon Bowman and Ashanti Cook-led Georgetown Hoyas in Chestnut Hill days earlier. Craig Smith, Jared Dudley, and Sean Marshall were a terrifyingly terrific triple treat, beating you in more ways than one. Al Skinner was cracking the code of the Big East Conference, approaching his third 20-win season in four years.
On that night, West Virginia simply had no answer for BC's Smith, who scored 23 points in a 62-50 victory to give Boston College its best start in program history at 19-0. Embattled, West Virginia now had to dig even deeper. With a 12-7 record and 2-6 mark in Big East play, navigating through the toughest roads had them pining for their own, tranquil country roads.
But then, the run was on. And it all started with the emergence of an unlikely hero.
Martinsburg, West Virginia's Kevin Pittsnogle served the Mountaineers has a role player for the early portion of his career. Brought into the fray two years prior, Pittsnogle burst onto the scene with a marvelous, 26-point outing in an 86-75 victory over the Rutgers Scarlet Knights on January 26, 2003. He was particularly prodigious from the 3-point arc, drilling from long range at an efficient 47.6 percent mark his freshman year, and 42.6 percent as a sophomore.
The first edition of the basketball version of the Backyard Brawl loomed on Saturday, February 5. On gameday, Beilein, celebrating his 52nd birthday, received an interesting present: center D'or Fischer was battling an illness and was unable to play. The Mountaineers' third-leading scorer at the time was thrust to the sidelines, and Beilen turned to the 20-year old kid from Martinsburg to scrap with the Mountaineers against the hated Panthers.
Scrap he did.
SPLASH! SPLASH! SPLASH!
Pittsnogle exploded for 27 points in 34 minutes, with a 10-for-17 mark from the field. Big bucket after big bucket, his performance helped snuff out the schneid the Mountaineers were on over their adversaries, upsetting No. 16 Pitt 83-78 in overtime.
Onwards West Virginia went, piecing the puzzle together. From the cellar, they ascended. Pittsnogle, unbelievable as he was previously unknown, was the catalyst. Beilein, bullied by the beasts of the Big East, found his groove once again. Once 12-7, by season's end the West Virginia Mountaineers finished 18-9 in astounding fashion and swept their arch rival in the process. The familiar country roads they had longed for were finally paved for them, and their journey now took a swing up north.
New York City has the reputation of a "dog eat dog" world. Though it's clichéd, The Big Apple will take a bite out of you, chew you up, and spit you out with the yucky remnants scattered on the sidewalk without even a millimeter of remorse.
Should you attain immortality in the world's greatest city, you will likely find it -- if you're an athlete -- at The World's Most Famous Arena. Willis Reed. Ali-Frazier I. Mark Messier. Larry Johnson. Many before them, many after them have all eclipsed expectations and entered ecstasy inside the confines of Madison Square Garden.
Throughout its elongated, toiled and often-told history, the Big East Tournament remained no different leading up to the 2005 spectacle. Many of college basketball's greatest moments had occurred at The Garden, with stories being written at a vigorous clip. The event was -- and to some, still is -- the most anticipated event of the year prior to the NCAA Tournament. It's hard to find any conference tournament that generates as much of a buzz as the Big East Tournament does, because with the elements in play you never know what you're going to get.
The year before, West Virginia was nothing short of an afterthought, and fought hard in a one-point loss to the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. The Connecticut Huskies would eventually storm through The Garden, en route to the 2004 National Championship thanks to the likes of Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon. Rumbling into the 2005 event, UConn was still heavily touted. Their neighbors to the east -- Boston College -- were one of the favorites, after finishing 25-5, the best record in the conference. Elsewhere were Syracuse and Villanova, the traditional powers. And West Virginia stood at No. 8 and had a date with the Providence Friars on March 9.
WVU kicked things off with a bang. Four players in double figures helped catapult them to an 82-59 win over the Friars. Future NBA hooper Ryan Gomes had 20 points and eight rebounds for the Friars, but PC just could not stop the Martinsburg big man. Pittsnogle grabbed eight rebounds too, and blistered his foe for 24 points on 7-for-13 shooting. This all in just 24 minutes played. Tyrone Sally and Mike Gansey complimented the Mountaineer hero for a combined 27 points, and Beilein's bunch now turned their attention to the heavy hitters.
The aforementioned Eagles had their day of rest and met the Mountaineers on Thursday. Prior to the event, it was revealed that Boston College would be marching to the Atlantic Coast Conference. Not only was BC a lightning rod for their current peers as the big dog of the yard, with them absolutely certain of taking each team's best shot. But with those stakes raised, knowing the Eagles had their feet out of the door, it would be hard pressed to not think their opponents would want to have the satisfaction of evicting them from the Big East personally.
Unlike their two previous bouts, this was a heavyweight fight.
West Virginia came out all guns blazing, battering the then-No. 7 ranked Eagles 44-22 after the first 20 minutes of action. Their lead hit 25 after a Mike Gansey three-point play early in the second half. Gansey, who led the way that afternoon with 21 points, was a disruption all afternoon for BC. But like any prize fighter, the Eagles had a second wind in them. They chipped and chipped and chipped, climbing back to within four with less than five minutes left.
But Pittsnogle, who scored on a ginormous 3-pointer in the late moments to extend the gap, eventually putting Boston College to bed, 78-72. And on went the Mountaineers again.
A date with destiny was on the line in West Virginia's next matchup. To get to their first Big East Title Game, they had to power their way past Randy Foye and the 22-6 Villanova Wildcats. The 'Cats, much like the Eagles, were aplomb, accomplished and awesome. But the Mountaineers were dead set on mining through the treachery in front of them.
Much like their meeting with Boston College, West Virginia got out to a halftime lead. And just like the previous matchup, it was a back-and-forth tussle in the second frame. Trading blows, 'Nova and WVU were entrenched in this rumble at the site of many great fights before.
With 10 seconds remaining, Foye drove to the cup and tied the game up at 76. Almost 10 seconds later, Gansey was inexplicably fouled by Wildcat Allan Ray. In a game in which West Virginia hit a staggering 13 3-pointers, their first appearance in the Big East Championship came down to free throws.
And Gansey, with ice water in his veins, knocked them down, sending Morgantown into a frenzy.
Pittsnogle's performance in the Villanova game was rather good, even if Gansey was playing the leading role. He complimented the man who gave West Virginia its first-ever Big East Championship Game appearance with 18 points and the Mountaineers were set to take on the Syracuse Orange. Led by Hakim Warrick and Gerry McNamara -- who one year later pulled off one of the most remarkable, unforgettable sequences of play that the Big East and the realm of college basketball has ever bared witness to -- the 'Cuse were poised to win their first Big East Tournament title in 13 years. The Mountaineers were happy to be in this position after a breathtaking run from February onwards. If they could make history, it would be the icing on the cake. John Beilein's groove was back as he helped craft a masterpiece in Morgantown with Pittsnogle and Gansey as his star pupils.
Perhaps the final result of this run is worth noting. Syracuse, on the back of a double-double from Warrick, the 2005 Big East Tournament MVP, won their first Big East Tournament title in 13 years and their fourth overall, wiping out the dreams of the hopefuls in Morgantown, West Virginia. Pittsnogle, who'd been so great, sputtered, nabbing just two points and was held to 1-of-8 shooting by the fierce Orange defense. Gansey was good, scoring 11, but not great; not nearly as dynamic as he was against Boston College or Villanova, not Gansey, not Pittsnogle, not Sally nor Johannes Herber could pry the Orange away from winning their fourth Big East Tournament Championship on that Saturday night in mid-March.
Five years later, on the back of Da'Sean Butler, Kevin Jones, and Devin Ebanks, the Mountaineers would win their first-ever Big East Championship with another fanatical skirmish through the field, led by the heroics of Butler whose game-winning buckets clinched the title, winning back-to-back-to-back games at Madison Square Garden. They refused to wilt under the pressures at The Garden, as head coach Bob Huggins helped WVU achieve what some Mountaineers fans believed would be, at one time, unattainable.
Though Syracuse one-upped West Virginia in NYC, history reminds us that it was the Mountaineers who got the last laugh. A dramatic, enthralling run to the Elite Eight brought the program, Pittsnogle, and Beilein up to new heights never thought to be achievable. His 22-point, eight-rebound outing over Texas Tech helped push West Virginia to the Elite Eight where he scored 25 in a losing effort to future Big East foe Louisville, who was armed by Larry O'Bannon, Taquan Dean and future NBA-er Francisco Garcia.
Syracuse, of course... well, we'll let Gus Johnson take it from here:
If anyone came out looking the greatest in this scenario, it was the head coach. Despite his troubles through murky waters this year in Ann Arbor, John Beilein has absolutely established himself as one of the nation's best head coaches as the lead man for the Michigan Wolverines. Beilein finished his tenure with West Virginia at 104-60 -- a far cry from his 31-29 record through the first two seasons on the job. Since taking over at Michigan, he's 163-106 with a streak of four NCAA Tournament appearances under his belt. That will likely come to an end this year -- Michigan's 13-12 at the moment -- but the Wolverines were the NCAA Runner-Up in 2013 and made the Elite Eight last season, and Beilein's preparation and work along the sidelines played a major role in their successes.
Perhaps the hardest fall of all came for the hero. Pittsnogle entered the NBA Draft in 2006 along with his ally in Gansey. Neither were drafted. He was signed by the Boston Celtics, and spent time with the Cleveland Cavaliers' NBA Summer League Team in 2006 and 2007, and also was with the Austin Toros and Albuquerque Thunderbirds. Pittsnogle has treaded waters in the CBA with the Pittsburgh Xplosion. Unfortunately, a thyroid condition halted his basketball playing days for much of 2008 and 2009 but he has since recovered and recently partook in a semipro team out of Jefferson County, West Virginia.
The West Virginia Mountaineers' basketball program has no doubt ascended in the years that followed. Their Elite Eight tussle with the Louisville Cardinals was one of the best games of that postseason, despite being upstaged by the classic in Rosemont between the Arizona Wildcats and Illinois Fighting Illini. The Mountaineers have won upwards of 200+ games since the 2004-05 season's conclusion, making their imprint on the nation as a tough out almost on a yearly basis.
WVU has been part of other memorable NCAA Tournament moments since their tussle with Rick Pitino's Cards squad. Does the name Joe Alexander ring a bell to you? Duke fans, look away.
The Mountaineers also added a trip to the Final Four in 2010, in what was their first appearance in such an event since 1959. This venture included a defeat over the highly touted Kentucky Wildcats, who were armed with the likes of John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe, all future NBA studs. A devastating injury to the incomparable Da'Sean Butler derailed their hopes, as they were eventually dismissed by the soon-to-be National Champion Duke Blue Devils, but the accomplishment, and journey, still resonates today amongst Mountaineer fans.
As the likes of Juwan Staten, Devin Williams, Jevon Carter and Jonathan Holton all continue their rampant chase for a Big 12 Championship this season, the memories from a decade ago of Beilein and Pittsnogle, on the brink of uncertain circumstances, coming together to put the pieces together for a run that would serve as the launching pad for the program still hold up to the test of time.