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In light of loss, WVU left asking 'What if?'

INDIANAPOLIS -- West Virginia's locker room had been filled for the past month with people asking the players questions. It was different Saturday night, beyond the way despair had replaced delight, and the Mountaineers were the ones left wondering.

What if?

What if they had played better defense? What if they had made more shots? What if a few players had done a few more things?

Quite clearly in the minds of the Mountaineers, it would have been their team and not Duke's playing here Monday night for the national championship.

But what if WVU was to play the school's biggest game in 51 years amid the tragedy that occurred in that Raleigh County coal mine earlier in the day?

The story at the Final Four to crown the 72nd national champion was of Duke's Goliath against Butler's David, of prestige versus underdog, of the ghosts of Villanova in 1985 and North Carolina State in 1983 rising to spook the Blue Devils back to Tobacco Road.

In reality, Butler was wonderfully worthy, but Duke was just good enough and won its fourth national title, all since 1991, with a 61-59 victory.

What if it was different and WVU was on the other side of Butler? The Bulldogs would have had their crowd, what with the campus six miles down the road and a slice of the college basketball fan base that loves the mid-major and what it does for March Madness.

WVU, though, would have had its entire state, and while that would have been plenty inspiring, it would have had America, too.

For the previous 11 games, dating back to the Feb. 22 loss at Connecticut after which Coach Bob Huggins challenged his players to be special and do something special for the state, the Mountaineers had been everything to almost everyone in the state. The exception, Huggins said late last month, was "that little pocket over there by Ashland."

Whoever was covering this tournament, be it the cub reporter at the newspaper on the opponent's campus or the national name who found the story to be too much to resist, was asking about what the championship would mean to the state.

In one reply, Huggins would talk about boarding a bus with the trophy and touring the state "just so people could see it and touch it and share it." In another, he was telling an eerie story about how Gov. Joe Manchin pulled him aside before the Sweet Sixteen game against Washington to share a secret about the game.

"They piped in to all the factories and all the mines and everything the play-by-play because otherwise guys were trying to get off their shift because they wanted to watch the game," Huggins said. "So they piped it in. It's piped in everywhere in the state of West Virginia. Everybody in West Virginia is listening to the game or watching the game. That's how much it means to our state."

What if the Mountaineers were playing Monday night? Maybe the audio is again pumped into the mines. Or maybe the game is so big miners call off work to watch at home or somewhere more comfortable than miles under the Earth's surface.

What if it was WVU playing Butler? There'd be no doubt the people of the state who have such an intensely personal relationship with WVU would also have a unique partnership with the Mountaineers and with overlapping events that are anything from sad to tragic. It seems something always conspires to spoil a moment WVU and its fans are supposed to enjoy.

What if WVU had a chance to cut down those nets at Lucas Oil Stadium? Monday would have been a day of indescribable anxiety. Friends and families affected by the explosion and roof collapse at Upper Big Branch, about 45 miles south of Charleston, would be awaiting far more important news than a final score.

Surely the players would have been distracted and a big part of the biggest day of their lives would be spent worrying about the very people who worry so much about their success.

It is Huggins, after all, who tells the story about how a friend found him soon after he was hired in 2007 and provided perspective. The friend told Huggins coal is not West Virginia's greatest export.

"It is," Huggins relayed, "the people."

In 2006, a methane explosion at Sago Mine in Upshur County trapped 13 people and only one would come out alive a few days later. The night of the explosion the Mountaineers played in the Sugar Bowl and defeated Georgia.

"It's a tough day for the state and hopefully this victory, because we have so much pride, will help people feel good about themselves," said then-Coach Rich Rodriguez, whose father, brothers and uncles were miners. "It's only football, but we wanted to do something to lift our people's spirits. We always want to play well, but tonight especially.''

Not three weeks later, two men were trapped in a Logan County mine fire. They were found dead two days later and hours before the WVU basketball team won at UCLA.

"West Virginians are very proud people and we've had a rough time lately and a rougher time today with the discovery the two miners did not make it," then-Coach John Beilein said. "At this time of the year, Mountaineers basketball is pretty big, so I hope we made a lot of people happy today. It's been a very tough January for everybody."

What if WVU had a game Monday night? The Mountaineers would have taken the emotional hit, confronted the occasion and done everything to prevail. As much as WVU sports has a mystique of misery in big moments, WVU sports has a way of lifting up its followers. For that reason, above anything else about Butler or about basketball, there may have been no beating the Mountaineers.

Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at mikec@dailymail.com or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.


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