Perhaps this was an unintended consequence of pushing the annual game up from its typical January date to early December instead. A matchup that typically interrupted WVU’s always-difficult Big East Conference schedule instead came squarely in the midst of nonconference play, making it easier for the Herd to have WVU’s full focus.
It probably didn’t hurt that West Virginia came in with a 2-3 record and was in dire need of a nonconference win with tough games against Virginia Tech and Michigan looming in the immediate future. And while most were focused on the fight in the immediate aftermath of the game, for WVU, the important thing was what the scoreboard said: Mountaineers 69, Marshall 59.
Forget the dramatics of the final stages for just a moment. There were plenty of other tangible signs that this one meant a lot to the men from Morgantown.
No player exuded the emotion more than Keaton Miles.
The sophomore forward was into the game early, getting close to a Marshall player’s face and screaming a mocking “Yeah!” as a pass was just beyond his reach. After the fracas, Miles trapped Marshall’s Dennis Tinnon under his own basket, forced a turnover and again let loose a primal yell. Guard Juwan Staten sprinted down half of the court to celebrate with his teammate.
Gary Browne was similarly excitable all game long, rushing to get involved in every exchange of words or shoves -- despite often being dwarfed by his MU counterparts.
Before his ejection, Aaric Murray added plenty of energy -- coach Bob Huggins called this the La Salle transfer’s best game in a WVU uniform -- both when he was on the floor and on the bench.
Of course, all the emotions came to a head with 1:37 to go, after Deniz Kilicli’s layup gave West Virginia a 61-54 lead. Marshall’s Robert Goff was ejected for kicking Staten, which led to four WVU players getting up from the bench to defend their teammate. It was instinctive reaction, and no one threw a punch, but all four were ejected for leaving the bench area.
It obviously wasn’t the appropriate reaction -- in a tighter game, the losses may have seriously hurt the Mountaineers’ chances at victory. But it showed that there is some backbone to this team that had not been evident heretofore.
“We’re constantly preaching family ... Our team is our family, and we’re all we have,” Staten told The Daily Athenaeum.
And that family, for once, cared about a win in this series as much as Marshall’s fans and players did.
“We always talk about that,” Kilicli said. “Those are the guys that want to be in our spot. This is one of the biggest games they play. And they play really hard. But they lost. And it’s hard, when you’re that pumped up, and it’s one of your biggest games, and it’s for the state, and it’s for all your fans ... and when you lose, it’s hard. Of course you’re going to try to hit people. It’s OK. We won the game, and that’s all that matters. The Marshall seniors don’t have a chance again, and they can do whatever they want to do now.
“We are West Virginia. We’re the state’s team. We prove it over and over again.”
At least in this series, rarely did WVU prove that more than on Wednesday, when the Mountaineers showed they wanted a win in the Capital Classic as badly as the opposition.
That, more than the fight in the final minutes, should be the important takeaway from this game for the Mountaineers. Struggling or not, they won't easily shy away from a fight.