Sunday, March 15, 1997
Blame UC, not fate

The Cincinnati Enquirer

WVU's Damian Owens steals the ball from Ruben Patterson. The Bearcats had 22 turnovers.
(Saed Hindash photo)
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BOISE, Idaho - The ball had all the rotation of a brick. Jarrod West heaved it at the basket the way a man might toss a soggy sweatshirt at a clothes hamper: Hard enough to get the distance; high enough to benefit from a bounce.

Ruben Patterson thought he got a piece of it, could feel the grain on the tips of his fingers, could not imagine the shot could carry far enough once it had been deflected, could not believe when it banked through the basket.

''It feels,'' Patterson said Saturday afternoon, ''like somebody just stabbed me.''

Like so many games in the NCAA Tournament, West Virginia's 75-74 victory over the University of Cincinnati will be remembered for its frenetic, final seconds and not for the plot twists that made West's magic possible. The videotape will show a plucky point guard putting up a prayer, having it answered in the affirmative, and then a tangle of boisterous bodies piling on top of him.

''Thank God for the blessing,'' West Virginia coach Gale Catlett said. ''And this was a blessing.''

But before we start addressing the Mountaineers' mail to Almost Heaven, West Virginia, let us not mistake failure for fate. The Bearcats had every chance to win this game without going to the wire, but handled the ball as if shards of glass were sticking out of it. If the excruciating defeat was not exactly what they deserved, there is no fluke finish without 22 UC turnovers.

Bobby Brannen loses control of the ball.
(Saed Hindash photo)
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''We lost this game in the first half, by not protecting the ball,'' said UC's Melvin Levett. ''A sixth-grade team probably could break a press like that, if you just get yourself to the right spots. But we threw the ball around. We have a great press offense. No reason we should have let that happen. No reason whatsoever.''

A team that has historically thrived through full-court pressure was toppled Saturday because it couldn't cope with it. Michael Horton, UC's purported point guard, committed eight turnovers and continues to dribble the ball off his feet. Bobby Brannen, UC's power forward, was pressed into service as a press-breaker, fielding inbounds passes instead of hustling up the floor because Bob Huggins could not count on anyone else to make sound decisions against backcourt traps.

''We made a lot of dumb mistakes,'' Patterson said, ''and made a lot of dumb decisions. If you turn the ball over, the other team is going to get it and score.''

Full-court pressure does more than create turnovers. It also foments fatigue. Some of the rebounds the Bearcats were getting in the first half they watched flat-footed in the second. Brannen played all 40 minutes, but made only one shot from the field after intermission.

''We're not very deep,'' Huggins said. ''We might have got a little tired because we didn't execute in certain stages.''

Melvin Levett watches WVU's Adrian Pledge try to save the ball from going out of bounds.
(Saed Hindash photo)
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Yet despite all that - despite turnovers and tired legs and the additional rigors of playing at altitude - all that kept the Bearcats from the Sweet 16 was West's shot.

Twice in the final 1:03, D'Juan Baker stepped behind a screen and sank a three-point shot, turning a four-point deficit into a two-point UC lead. Two days earlier, Baker had beaten Northern Arizona with a three-pointer with four seconds to play. This time, he left too much time on the clock.

''The first thing that went through my mind was all the games we've lost like that,'' said West Virginia forward Damian Owens. ''I remember saying one time it was like a ghost haunting us. For a minute, I thought I saw that ghost. But we had the ghostbuster on our team.''

West Virginia put the ball inbounds with seven seconds to play, and West streaked up the floor to take the final shot. He got a step on Horton with a crossover dribble about 25 feet from the basket, and then ran the UC guard into a pick by center Brian Lewin.

''When Mike got picked, I ran out there and jumped as high as I can and put my hand up and the ball went off my fingers,'' Patterson said. ''I felt it, and I just knew it was short and (it) went off the glass. . . . I don't know how it went in . . . Oh, man, it's a killer.''

Levett said he would have paid West $100 to make the shot a second time.

''I guarantee you he wouldn't make that shot if we went back out there right now,'' Levett said. ''It's just something happens in the NCAA Tournament. We watched Valparaiso do it last night. We watched Iona against Syracuse. Things like that happen. I just wish it hadn't happened to us.''

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