Last Saturday, the West Virginia Mountaineers beat the Wake Forest Demon Deacons in thrilling double overtime action to advance to the Sweet Sixteen in Albuquerque New Mexico. That win got us thinking. Albuquerque is a mere 465 miles from Phoenix by car. Yup, ROAD TRIP. Unfortunately, the Mountaineers next game was on Thursday evening, with employment obligations making such a trip an unlikely possibility. In the event that the ëeers beat the General and the Texas Tech Red Raiders, Chopper and I agreed, we would be New Mexico bound.
Sure enough, Thursday night, those cardiac kids beat the Red Raiders, and advanced to the Elite Eight for the first time since Jerry West was wearing the blue and gold. (Thatís 1959). A few phone calls to Chopperís dad Albie, a man who knows how to get these things, netted us a couple of tickets that the Lanhams (who were in Albuquerque for the game) were able to procure. On Friday we booked the dog for Saturday doggie day camp, gassed up Heidi, my faithful banana yellow Audi wagon, and got ready for an early Saturday morning departure for the 2:40 tip-off Saturday afternoon.
Saturday morning we threw some sodas and water in a cooler, along with a couple of Coors Lights (prepared for a modest victory celebration before our return), packed a few other things into the wagon, dropped Fenway at Doggie Day Camp, and hit the road. I queued up an audio book for the trip on my iPod; ìRammer Jammer Yellow Hammer,î Warren St. Johnís memoirs of a season following crazed Alabama football fans from game to game in a convoy of RVís. As we pulled the Audi onto I-17, for the 6+ hour trip to Albuquerque, this seemed like a fitting choice. While we listened to the details of the meticulous preparation, fanatical devotion, and gernal insanity of the Alabama RV Corps, a couple of thoughts crossed my mind. First of all, Heidi was getting way too many miles per gallon, and second, we had not packed nearly enough Coors Light. Maybe we were not as hard core as the Crimson Tide hard cores, but we had our own path to forge. After all, how often do you get a speeding ticket for 90 mph in a RV? (And I had been doing so well ticket-wise recently). Besides being black flagged for speed on I-40 for about 5 minutes, the trip went smoothly, and in just over 6 hours, we pulled into the parking lot of ìthe Pit,î The Univeristy of New Mexicoís basketball area.
The Pit was built, according to the website, in the 1960ís in unique fashion. First, crews constructed a roof, sitting on top of the ground, and then excavated the earth under the roof, creating the stands and floor beneath the surface of the ground. From the outside, the Pit looks, in the apt words of Bill Lanham; îlike a bowling alley.î It is only when you step inside, that the floor and stands open up below you. The unassuming arena holds some 18,000 fans, and by game time, the Pit was nearly full.
We met Bill Lanham outside the Pit, at the West Virginia will call, where he generously gave us the tickets he had picked up, free of charge. We chatted with the Lanhams and a few others from Morgantown for a bit before taking our seats to watch the teams warm up. We were seated 20 some rows up on the baseline, a few rows behind Kevin Pittsnoggleís parents.
West Virginia came out hot. Real hot. The offense had been predicated on the 3 point shot all season, and this was quite possibly the culmination. The Mountaineers were shooting threes from all over the floor, and knocking them down like they were layups. They built a lead consistently during the first half, and went to the locker room with a 13 point lead.
WVU built that a bit in the second half, but I never got the feeling that the game was over. At 9 minutes, Louisville was down 9, at 7 minutes, down 7, and on and on. Louisville employed a tough full court press for the duration of the half, and began to chip away at the lead. The mountaineers proved incapable of hitting any shot other than a three pointer, and true to form, Kevin Pittsnoggle hit a huge 3 to put the ëeers up 4 with only a minute left. So close to the Final Four. And then Louisville scored a couple easy buckets, tied it up, and we were overtime bound.
The overtime period was predictably all Louisville. WVU had pretty much blown everything to get this far, and did not have enough to stay with the Cards in OT. After the game, the Louisville players celebrated, and the Mountaineer fans gave the players a much deserved round of applause. Many of these kids will be back for next year. Not athletic enough for the NBA draft as underclassmen, for most of the Mountaineers, NCAA basketball is the end of the line. I recall telling incredulous UConn Husky fan Scott Reagan two years ago, when Pittsnoggle and Beilein were freshmen, that the Mountaineers would be good in three years. Turns out it only took two.
Despite the promise of next year, the present was pretty glum. Not feeling much like celebrating, we left the Coors Light in the cooler, and pointed the wagon west to Phoenix.
On the way back we stopped in Gallup New Mexico, along a fabulous stretch of historic Route 66, with 1960ís-esque flashing lights and neon motor lodge signs. We hit a Carls Jr. for a quick bite, and ran into Mike Ganseyís uncle, on his way back to Salt Lake City. We chatted for a bit about the Ganseys, and the team. As we left, Chopper called out to the uncle; ìWeíll get ëem next year.î