Is there any doubt that Louisville/West Virginia is the best multi-sport rivalry in the new Big East? The two programs haven't played a dull game on the gridiron or hardwood since they met in the finals of the Albuquerque region in the 2005 NCAA Tournament.
Thursday night was no exception.
The Cardinals advanced to the semifinals of the Big East Tournament and may have dealt the crowning blow to WVU's NCAA Tournament aspirations by knocking off the Mountaineers 82-71 in double overtime.
After a Darren Nichols bucket gave the 'Eers a 58-56 lead with 4.3 seconds to play in regulation, Edgar Sosa made the play of the game by taking the ball the length of the floor, splitting the WVU defense, and making a lay-up just before time expired.
As for the whole "did he/didn't he" issue, I've watched the replay a bunch of times and to be honest I'm still not a hundred percent sure. I don't think that it's a call the referee can make at the end of the game, especially considering how ambiguous it is even with video replay.
People who are arguing that he did walk I can respect, but those that are saying the shot shouldn't have counted because the clock didn't start on time are in the wrong. Even if the clock had started right when Sosa touched the ball off the in-bounds pass, he still would have gotten it up with .2 seconds left. Additionally, an extra .3 seconds mistakenly ran off the clock after Nichols' shot had come out of the bottom of the net, so if anything the clock simply achieved equilibrium by not starting on time.
Bickering aside it was a ballsy play by Sosa, but I think I loved the play before where he bullied his way into the lane to tie the game at 56 even more. The kid simply will not back down, and once he learns how to properly hone his immense skill I think he can be the best point guard in the Big East.
Rick Pitino was singing the freshman's praises after the game.
"He epitomizes what you've heard for the last 30 years about a New York City point guard," Pitino said. Then Pitino asked, "What does that mean?" before answering himself.
"A New York City point guard means he has no fear of anything," he added. "He's going to play with a lot of emotion and a lot of passion."
According to reporters in the locker room after the game, Sosa himself seemed embarrassed that he was getting so much attention on a night where he went just 2-of-8 from the floor and scored only eight points.
"I was just over-excited because I was in my hometown, with my family and everything," Sosa said. "I'm glad my teammates picked up the slack for me today. I didn't really play my best game."
When asked to describe what he thought Pitino meant by a typical New York point guard, Sosa said: "I'm still trying to figure that out." Later on after a question he seemed to show exactly what his coach meant by saying, "I'm not afraid to play anybody anywhere."
One of the teammates who "picked up the slack" for Sosa was sophomore athlete extraordinaire Terrence Williams who stuffed the stat sheet again with 21 points, nine rebounds, four assists, two blocks and two steals in a whopping 45 minutes on the court.
I think it says a lot about T-Will that he played 45 minutes and I remember thinking at one point that he had spent far too much time on the bench. He may take ill-advised shots or make ill-advised passes from time-to-time, but he makes our offense go and he's one of only two guys on the team who can break down their defender off the dribble (Edgar being the other).
I have no idea how anyone can consistently criticize a kid who plays with so much heart and tenacity, and who is easily the most multi-dimensional and important player on this team.
I've said for months that Brandon Jenkins' defense is the most underrated facet of anyone's game on the team, well I think T-Will's rebounding is a close second. The guy will pull down 10 boards, play stifling defense, and create opportunity after opportunity for his teammates and all people will talk about is the fact that he was 1-for-5 from three.
T-Will is the kind of guy that people automatically gravitate to without knowing why, and I think his personality is one of the main reasons this team has grown so close. This squad has gelled into one cohesive unit, and Terrence Williams is the guy at the center spreading the love and making it work.
The other main slack picker-upper was another freshman, Earl Clark. Making just his second start, Clark played 41 minutes (really?), scored 17 points on 8-of-12 shooting, grabbed nine rebounds and swiped two steals. He also solidified his role as the master of Damian Dantzler-esque daggers by drilling a three from the top of the key to make it a nine point game in the second overtime.
I know I've said it before, but how amazingly cool is this guy? I think when he smiled after the tip-in in the first half (first on-court smile of the season I believe), he officially reached Nicholson status. Earl Clark if you want to wear sunglasses on the floor from this point on, you've officially earned that right.
If there's one downer in all of this, it's that we probably just ended the tourney hopes of a guy who I think is one the best and classiest coaches in the game. Beilein said all the things you'd expect him to after the game. For example:
When asked about his team's tourney hopes: "This is a very skilled committee. They really look at teams. We were a tenth of a second away from a great, great win. We'll be keeping our fingers crossed."
When asked about the clock issue on Sosa's overtime forcer: "I did not see that," Beilein said. "I've got to trust that the timekeepers know what they are doing."
When asked about Louisville getting breaks: "It's a painful loss when you do everything and then you come back and take the lead," West Virginia coach John Beilein said. "They made some breaks go their way. We did not have many breaks in that last overtime."
This guy has done a remarkable job with a team that lost 86% of its scoring from a year ago, and they deserve to be in the tournament. You can't tell me that with their offense and the fact that they have the potential to hit 20 threes on any given night, that the coach of a five seed doesn't want to play a team like Air Force or Old Dominion more than West Virginia.
If they're taking the best 34 at-large teams avaliable then the Mountaineers should go, even if it means that a "down" Big East Conference gets eight and the brackets are harder to draw, give this team a 12 seed and they're winning at least one game.
If there was a second downer in all of this, it was the play of Jerry Smith.
Pitino said that WVU might make the freshmen look silly on defense, and he wasn't lying. When Smith came in for BJ for the first time, you really got to appreciate what the senior brings to the floor on the defensive end.
Jerry got beat back door, he got beat off the dribble, he didn't switch properly; it was hard to watch. Of course this would have been easier to take had he been producing on the offensive end, but not only were his shots from the outside not falling, they weren't even close and he finished the game with just two points and five fouls.
But did you see him on the bench after he fouled out? Kid had just played arguably the worst game of his season and he was standing the entire time, living and dying with every play. That's why this team has won seven in a row and is one of the hottest in the country heading into the dance, and that's why Jerry Smith is going to be remembered as a great one after he hangs it up here.
A play that I haven't heard talked about anywhere else that I thought was huge was the one that started the 18-0 Mountaineer run. With the Cards up 44-27 and with all the momentum leaning towards them getting another stop, Nichols blatantly walked twice and when the whistle didn't blow he was able to find Frank Young wide open in the corner for a three that got them off the snide.
I realize that it didn't seem like much at the time, but basketball is a game so predicated by momentum that one no-call like that can have a huge effect on a game. That play took some of the bounce out our step and we started settling for outside shots and getting away from what had gotten us the big lead in the first place which was attacking the defense by getting the ball into the middle.
A notable non-producer in the middle was Derrick Caracter who had led the Cards in scoring during their winning streak, but scored just a point in seven minutes on Thursday. Pitino said after the game that Caracter was too much of a liability on defense, and that he should be ready to play big minutes on Friday.
Caracter's lack of court time meant that David Padgett was forced to play 39 minutes on his still healing knees. As one might expect David played like a warrior, scoring 16 points on 6-of-7 shooting, and hitting all four of his free-throws down the stretch.
Another example of how great Beilein and his staff are is the way that they prepared for Padgett. Every time David caught the block, his defender moved to his left shoulder, knowing that he can't face and hit a jump shot. The hook moving to his right is DP's move and they completely took that away from him which had him frustrated for much of the game and forced him to throw a couple of uncharacteristically shaky passes early on. But not surprisingly when we needed it the most he was there with some key put-backs and a huge bucket off a great feed from Perrin Johnson (who played quite well during his nine minutes of court time) late in regulation.
I realize that I'm pretty much just talking about everyone here, but Andre McGee deserves a lot of praise as well, even if he has been called either Andrew or Antioine (Gottlieb) every time he's been mentioned on ESPN tonight.
After Sosa fouled out I said if we didn't score at the end of the first overtime that we were done because we couldn't win without him on the floor. Turns out I was wrong because #33 was fantastic, getting the ball into the hands of the right people at the right time, and making a great drive to the bucket and finding Padgett for a slam at one point when we were pulling away. If Andre can play like this when we need to sit Edgar, then we're set at the point guard position for a couple of years.
Of course what all this means is that now we have a date with a Pitt team that has been to the championship of this tournament in five of the last six years. I'm not sure what it is about New York that makes them amazing, but tonight they sure didn't look like the same team that was just trounced by Marquette four days ago.
As if there weren't already enough on the line, this is a bit of a revenge game for the Panthers who were handed their worst home-loss (66-53) in like, ever, by the Cards earlier this season. Gray is looking better and the shots are starting to fall from the outside for Fields and Ramon, meaning that their late-season slump is probably going to be short-lived.
I've heard some people say that they'd just as soon see us lose this game, well I hate that. I've never believed that there's such a thing as a "good loss," and I especially don't believe it when you're riding a seven-game winning streak. Sports are so mental and when you start to get it in your mind that you can't lose I think it really has a positive effect on the way you play.
There's a reason why baseball teams rally, or why basketball teams go on big runs, success is contagious and the best possible thing for this team right now would be a Big East Tournament championship.