MORGANTOWN, W. Va. — Maybe it was the gesture Pitt freshman guard Xavier Johnson gave toward West Virginia’s student section.
Or the icy stare Sidy N’Dir gave Sagaba Konate after dunking over the West Virginia forward.
It could have been the little bumps and shoves or chest-to-chest meetings between players that can come in the heat of a rivalry basketball game.
“It was a little chippy early,” West Virginia guard Chase Harler said after West Virginia’s 69-59 victory against Pittsburgh on Saturday. “Both teams were playing hard. It was intense.”
It was just a day before the game that Harler spoke about his team “punching back.”
Not literally, of course, but where West Virginia (6-3) showed little interest in trying to compete against Florida in a 10-point loss in New York, the Mountaineers were more than ready to respond when the Panthers drew a line in the sand four days later.
“We saw how physical they were trying to be,” West Virginia forward Esa Ahmad said. “We had to respond. We saw that the refs were going to let us play.
“You know, we lift weights, too, so we wanted to show them that we were there and we weren’t going anywhere.”
The Panthers never led by more than three points during a stretch of 5:26 in the first half that saw the Mountaineers go 1 for 6 from the floor with three turnovers.
That stretch also contained two double technical fouls; one between West Virginia’s Lamont West and Pitt’s Jared Wilson-Frame for going chest-to-chest in a confrontation and the other between West Virginia’s Andrew Gordon and Pitt’s Kene Chukwuka for some extra-curricular activity after a play was blown dead.
In losses to Buffalo and Western Kentucky, there were excuses at the ready, generally health concerns and a lack of practice time for both Konate and point guard Beetle Bolden.
In the loss to Florida, the Mountaineers made one run to get back into the game and took a one-point lead early in the second half.
When Florida pushed again, WVU had little left in the tank, prompting Harler’s “punch back” discussion with the media prior to the Pitt game.
If it took a rival team pointing a finger in the Mountaineers’ face to wake West Virginia up, well, it may have done just that.
“In the past few games, if that kind of stuff would have happened, I don’t know how we would have reacted,” Harler said. “It’s never good to have technical fouls called, but we did not back down. That was the biggest thing I took from this game. Even through their little run, we kept our cool and we got the stops we needed to get through it.”
The bigger question will be whether or not the Mountaineers can sustain this momentum?
WVU begins final week today and the Mountaineers will have the entire week before traveling to the Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut to face Rhode Island (4-3), which is under first-year coach David Cox.
The Rams have losses to the University of Charleston, Providence and Stony Brook and are struggling from 3-point range, shooting 20.3 percent as a team from behind the line.
“That’s the kind of game we’re good at, getting chippy and playing hard,” Harler said. “That was like a perfect game for us.”
The Mountaineers will practice today, Tuesday and Wednesday before taking Thursday off. They will practice again on Friday and Saturday before traveling to Connecticut.
“We need to put some other things in,” Huggins said. “We need to work on press-breaker, obviously, but we also need our half-court offense to be a little more crisp and run a little more smoothly.”
Huggins said it wasn’t all that difficult to practice during finals week.
“Guys are going in and out, but it’s not as bad as it used to be,” Huggins said.
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