Backyard Brawl Still Something Special
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – The Backyard BasketBrawl made a stop at the WVU Coliseum on Saturday, the first time West Virginia and Pitt have squared off in Morgantown since 2012. Despite an absence of nearly seven years, most of those in attendance were well versed on the rivalry.
The Mountaineer fans – and not just the students – knew all three words to West Virginia’s favorite advice to those from Pitt. They chanted it loud and long, making up for the missed opportunities since the series went on hiatus after WVU departed the Big East Conference for the Big 12 following the 2012 season. The BasketBrawl was an annual event from 1918 to 2012 and has been played 186 times in all, but for most WVU students in attendance Saturday, this was the first time they got to see the Panthers play live in the Coliseum.
The renewal of the lapsed rivalry was special for those in attendance last year in Pittsburgh (a 69-60 West Virginia win) and was special for those at Coliseum on Saturday. And for those the floor, especially the Mountaineers who came out with the 69-59 victory, it was definitely a memorable event.
“It was nice to get the Backyard Brawl back,” said junior guard Chase Harler, who is a native of Moundsville, W.Va. “Growing up watching it, I knew how intense it was. The crowd today felt just like it did back then when I used to watch it on TV, so it was pretty cool to experience that.”
That intensity probably also contributed to plenty of sloppy moments. The two teams combined for 50 turnovers, 49 fouls, a shooting effort of 39-of-99 and four technical fouls. But all that mattered for the Mountaineers was their record improved to 6-3 on the season and 98-88 all-time against the Panthers.
“I’d like to say it was just another game, but to get to play against your school’s rival was a big deal,” said Cameron (W.Va.) High grad Logan Routt, who started in place of an injured Sagaba Konate. Routt chipped in four points and five rebounds, while Konate came off the bench to score 16 points, grab nine rebounds and block seven shots.
“I lived in Florida for my first 13 years, and I was a big Florida State fan growing up, so naturally I hated the Gators,” added Routt. “Last week when we played Florida, that felt like a big rivalry game for me. Then I moved to West Virginia, and Pitt was our big rival, but we never played them, so I wasn’t sure what the intensity was going to be like. Once we got going, though, it was really intense.”
WVU won despite committing 26 turnovers. That’s the most the Mountaineers have committed in 17 years, and it’s the most they’ve had and still won since an 81-73 victory over Duquesne in 2000.
But West Virginia’s defensive effort also forced the Panthers into 24 turnovers of their own, and limited Pitt to 17-of-54 on field goal attempts (30.5 percent).
“I loved the energy and the crowd. It was a great environment,” said senior forward Esa Ahmad, who was suspended for last year’s WVU win at Pitt, so he had never participated in the Brawl before. “That was a fun game. It was intense. It felt like a Kansas game.”
WVU head coach Bob Huggins is one who knows the Brawl very well. He improved to 6-7 against Pitt during his time as the head coach at his alma mater. He was also 6-2 against the Panthers in his time as a Mountaineer player (1975-77). Huggins said Saturday’s game was intense, but it didn’t match previous Brawls.
“I think it will take awhile before Pitt/West Virginia becomes what it was,” stated Huggins, who is now 851-344 in his college coaching career. “It’s been a long time between games. It’s still a rivalry, because it’s close enough for fans to get to the other school, but it’s not what it was.”
“They’ve been playing this game forever, so this is definitely a rivalry; there was a lot of intensity today,” noted Pitt’s first-year head coach Jeff Capel, whose Panthers fell to 7-3 after the loss.
West Virginia and Pitt have now played the first two games in a four-game contract, which sees the Mountaineers return to the Petersen Events Center next season and then the Panthers come back to the Coliseum in December of 2020.
Both Capel and Huggins would like to see the rivalry continue beyond that.
“I don’t know where the contract currently stands, but sure,” said Capel, a 1997 Duke grad, when asked if he wants the series to continue.
“I think it’s good for both schools,” added Huggins, who is in his 12th season as WVU’s head coach. “Obviously you’re going to get a big crowd, though I think there were a lot of empty seats today. Some people missed a heck of a game. But it’s a good series for both schools; they sell their place out, and we sell our place out. What’s bad about it?”
The rivalry is certainly more intense than the average December game, explained Harler.
“This was different than playing some of the other non-conference games we play,” admitted the Wheeling (W.Va.) Central Catholic alum. “This is a big game, and we were locked in a little more. Moving forward, we need this same mentality for every opponent, not just Pitt.”