By Matt Keller
Nate Adrian sat, head down with full uniform on, long after West Virginia’s loss in the Big 12 Championship title game. After teammates had eaten the postgame meal, after many had started to dress in their travel clothes, after head coach Bob Huggins returned from his postgame interview session.
“Come on, Nate,” Huggins said quietly. “Get dressed.”
There was a sense of the moment that might have been, the letdown to what could have been among the peaks in his senior season. Another league championship game, another loss. Another second-place finish in getting the hardware, the banners, which would instead go to Kansas for the regular season and Iowa State for the post.
“He did not want it to end like that,” said Adrian’s father, Kevin. “When you are competitive and you lose a close game, it’s one thing. But when you are not competitive and you had a better team, that’s hard to swallow.”
Indeed, Huggins noted that West Virginia didn’t defend well, didn’t turn Iowa State over and was putrid at the foul line. “And we lose by six,” he said.
It could have defined the season, that defeat to Iowa State, washing away the wins over No. 1 Baylor and No. 2 Kansas. Largely negating the resume of accomplishments because, in the end, what did West Virginia have to show but a series of second-place finishes? The Mountaineers weren’t undefeated out of conference, they didn’t win any titles. One of their “achievements” was that they were the first WVU team since 1961 to not lose a game by double digits. There had to be something more, especially after the Mountaineers dropped the opening round NCAA Tournament game a season ago.
“It was on my mind a little bit through our practice,” Adrian said of the missed chances as West Virginia prepared for the NCAA Tournment. “I just tried to stay even keel. We can’t get too high or too low. That’s the only way to play this game.”
West Virginia was seeded fourth in the West Region, getting a first round match-up with Bucknell and a potential second round one with Notre Dame. Win or go home, quite literally, for Adrian and WVU’s other four seniors in Tarik Phillip, Teyvon Myers, Brandon Watkins and James Long. It was one final chance to make one shining moment, and the Mountaineers finally seemed to grasp it.
They came out hesitant against Bucknell, but used Adrian’s third career double-double at 12 points and 10 rebounds, combined with 16 clutch points from Phillip, to push past the Bison 86-80 and set-up a key clash with the Irish that would provide a make-or-break moment. West Virginia jumped to a 10-0 lead and, behind 24 points from Jevon Carter and 18 from Daxter Miles, were able to hold off a hard-charging Notre Dame club for the sort of win that provided a sense of vindication for both WVU’s season as a whole and that of Adrian individually.
“A long as you hold them to less points than you, you are going to win,” Adrian said afterward in his matter-of-fact style. “We are all excited. It feels good to get out of the first two rounds. Take it in stride and prepare. Any win at this point you take, so we survive and move on.”
The victory vaulted a team that had flirted all season with the top 10 into the security of likely finishing ranked among the best 16 in the nation. It put WVU in its seventh Sweet 16 in its last 11 NCAA Tournament appearances, and the second in Adrian’s tenure. And it lessened the blow of what felt like an incomplete ending to the season, and a career. It would be the 139th game Adrian would play of his 140 at West Virginia, the Mountaineers bowing out five days later in a wrenching 61-58 defeat versus Gonzaga whose close saw Adrian, head bowed, on the court for the last time in the old gold and blue.
It was a remarkable span, really. Adrian, lightly recruited out of Morgantown High, finished tied with Wellington Smith for the fifth most games played in school history. He was named to the All-Big 12 defensive team and the conference’s third team overall. And he battled through the doubts of others with a perseverance that enabled him to come out on the other side a stronger player, and one who won the admiration of both his teammates and coach, as well as the fan base as a whole.
“I think people just recognize the work you put in,” said Adrian, who received the loudest cheers during the Senior Day introductions before the Iowa State game. “That’s not just me, it’s any senior that comes in here. There’s going to be some fanfares because (the seniors have) been there for four years, and people know what they’ve done for four years. I wouldn’t say anything is really different, it’s just being around for that long.”
Which isn’t the case. Adrian earned those cheers by being what Teyvon Myers called West Virginia’s most dependable player.
“Nate’s our leader,” Myers said. “We follow him. How he goes, we go.”
The career totals show 792 points, 516 rebounds and 2,920 minutes played, which is among the top 30 all-time at WVU. The kid who some said couldn’t play at this level played in every single game the Mountaineers were involved in over the past four years.
“We just can’t get him off the floor,” Huggins repeatedly said of the senior forward who averaged 9.6 points and a team-high 6.0 rebounds while seeing 30.3 minutes of action per game. “He does so many things for us. He’s probably played more than he should, but he’s dependable. He understands what we are doing, and I can make adjustments with him. He just makes plays every day.”
Adrian did become known for making diving plays, sacrificing his body in an effort to win 50-50 balls, secure possessions and ensure passes to teammates. It led to several nagging injuries, and yet the forward always played through it to the end, even when his left shoulder bothered him after being stretched against Texas in the Big 12 Championship.
“I think in all honesty, we thought he could play at this level more than he did,” Kevin Adrian said. “I talked to him many times about getting his confidence, and once he got that, he was going to be able to compete as well as anybody on the floor. It took him awhile to get that confidence and get the quickness and the speed of the game. The second half of his junior year he started to get his confidence and he started to believe he could compete with anybody that was on the court.
“I never had the expectation that he would play in 139 career games,” added Kevin. “I guess I really didn’t know what my expectations were to be honest. I didn’t think he would play as much as he did his freshman season. I think his sophomore year was his most difficult. Dealing with the social media aspect of it was difficult. But Nathan has always had a good support system and a lot of people to help him through that. This year, you couldn’t write a script any better.”
Adrian did work through a cyst in his shooting wrist as a sophomore, one he never told the coaching staff about until far too late. With his shooting percentage dropping from 41.6 percent to 30.7 as he went from his freshman to his sophomore seasons, and his minutes per game dropping along with his production, those were the roughest stretches for Nate, as well as his parents, Kevin and Lisa. Once the wrist was fixed, Adrian’s touch returned as he hit a blistering 40.7 percent from three-point range as a junior. That segued into a senior season in which Adrian set career marks for minutes per game, rebounds, free throw percentage, steals and assists, the latter of which is arguably his best asset with 108, the second most among all Big 12 forwards.
Adrian rarely made mistakes, and was as dependable with the ball as any player on the floor, Carter included. He did, as Huggins often says, what he could do, and never tried to be something he wasn’t.
“You know, people expected more from him, making shots, and they had no idea he was hurt,” Huggins said, remembering back to Adrian’s wrist injury his sophomore season. “I had no idea he was hurt. And he’s banged up now, but he just – you know, he fights through things. He’s a great competitor and a great person.”
The two share a similar approach to the game, the idea that going to work and truly focusing on the craft are its own rewards, both on and off the floor. Both have spoken about the state and its people, and the value that is West Virginia basketball.
“That was the guy I wanted to play for,” Adrian said of Huggins. “I want to play for someone who cares enough. I want to play for somebody who’s that competitive, who wants to win that bad. I don’t know why anyone would want to play for anyone else. Huggs is a two-sided person. There’s what people see and what people perceive him to be and then what he actually is, and that’s an extremely loyal, kind-hearted guy, honestly. I mean, he cares about us more than anyone I’ve ever known, any coach I’ve seen or been around. He’s definitely a different guy than what you think.”