It’s hard to believe it has been 15 years since Damian Owens last played for the West Virginia Mountaineers. The silky smooth 6-foot-6-inch forward helped WVU reach the NCAA tournament Sweet 16 in 1998 for the first time in 35 years with big postseason victories over Temple and Cincinnati.
That team finished the year with a 24-9 record.
“Ninety eight was phenomenal,” Owens said recently from his home in Upper Marlboro, Md. “We played together and we played off of one another and that was the great thing about that team. We complimented each other better than any team that I played with.”
The roles were clearly defined that season: Jarrod West was the team’s quarterback as its point guard, Adrian Pledger was the lock-down defender in the backcourt, Brent Solheim and Brian Lewin were the space eaters in the paint while Greg Jones, Jarrett Kearse and Marcus Goree gave the Mountaineers a big lift coming off the bench.
Then there was Damian Owens, the team’s catalyst because of the way he prowled the baseline on offense and the way he harassed players out on the perimeter on defense.
Owens easily ranks among West Virginia’s best all-around players of the last 50 years, the Seat Pleasant, Md., native scoring more than 1,600 points, grabbing more than 800 rebounds, dishing out more than 300 assists and producing more than 200 steals during his career.
In fact, the 97 steals he made in 1998 are still a school record. Owens had an uncanny knack of taking the ball away from bigger players who tried to post him up in the paint or using his long arms to intercept passes out on the wing that usually led to fast-break baskets.
“That was intuition,” Owens said of his ability to come up with steals. “A lot of things you watch are patterns. You see somebody and they are dribbling the ball and it’s one … two … three … and then he is doing a cross over the exact same way and you learn where the ball is going to be.
“Or, I just made the dude look open and then when I saw that first motion and he was about to cock his arm (to throw the ball) I would slip over and the ball was in my hands,” he explained.
Owens was the first Mountaineer player to earn first team all-Big East honors (in 1998) and he was also the first WVU player to win a major award from the Big East when he was named its defensive player of the year that season - much to the chagrin of Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who complained that his guy Etan Thomas should have won the award instead.
Having Big East-caliber players like Damian Owens on the roster made West Virginia’s transition from the Atlantic 10 to the Big East a seamless one. The Mountaineers joined the league before Owens’ sophomore season in 1996 - along with Rutgers and Notre Dame - but West Virginia’s transition was by far the easiest of the three, primarily because of Owens – the only player Derek Wittenberg successfully recruited to WVU during his one season working for Coach Gale Catlett.
“I signed in November before my senior season,” said Owens. “It came down to Georgetown and West Virginia and I didn’t want to be so far away from home that I couldn’t get back when I needed to, but I didn’t want to be so close that I could just catch a cab or a train.”
Owens became an immediate contributor for the Mountaineers, scoring 24 points in his very first collegiate game against Robert Morris and finishing his freshman season with averages of 10.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game.
A year later, in 1996, he averaged 14.6 points and 8.3 rebounds per game to earn third team all-Big East honors. West Virginia won seven league games that season and could have easily won three or four more if not for close losses to Georgetown, Pitt, Villanova and Miami.
“It was a big transition simply for the fact of the caliber of talent you were playing against at the time, but for me, I embraced it simply because being a guy who grew up in D.C. I watched the Big East and the ACC all the time on TV,” said Owens. “When I saw that West Virginia was going to the Big East I was ecstatic. I loved it.”
In 1997, West Virginia finished third in the Big East 6 with an 11-7 conference mark but failed to receive a bid to the NCAA tournament after falling to Providence in the Big East tournament quarterfinals in New York City. It was the first time a Big East team with at least 19 wins was left out of the NCAA tournament.
“In ’97 that was a heartbreaker that we didn’t get in,” said Owens.
West Virginia recovered from its disappointment to knock off Bowling Green and N.C. State in the NIT before falling short of reaching New York City when the Mountaineers lost to Florida State, 76-71, in Morgantown in the final eight.
Owens said West Virginia’s 76-73 victory at N.C. State in old Reynolds Coliseum was a game that clearly sticks out in his mind that season.
“One of the loudest places I’ve ever played in,” he said. “That was a crazy place. They had people in the crowd literally up on the court right on the out of bounds line. You are getting ready to take the ball out and you’re like, ‘Excuse me.’”
By Owens’ senior season in 1998, everything was in place to make a deep postseason run.
WVU won five in a row and nine of its first 10 to begin the season, including an 86-81 upset of 20th-ranked Georgia at the Georgia Dome when Owens scored 24 points and grabbed eight boards.
Three weeks later, he scored 27 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and handed out six assists in West Virginia’s 81-70 win over Georgetown in the first-ever ESPN Big Monday game at the Coliseum.
By early February, West Virginia had risen to 15th in the polls after a 90-72 victory over Pitt boosted its record to 19-3, and an 18-point win over sixth-ranked Connecticut in front of more than 15,000 eight days later was easily the highlight of the season.
Then, three days after that, Owens hurt his back while attempting to grab a rebound in a game up at Syracuse that the Mountaineers lost 73-58. With Owens now hobbled, West Virginia limped into the Big East tournament with back-to-back losses to Boston College and Miami.
“I was going up for a rebound and I kind of got pushed in the air and I was falling back,” he recalled. “At the same time, Brent Solheim was jumping up and he hit me in the back. Fortunately, there wasn’t anything wrong with my back permanently, it was just a very, very deep bruise.”
Owens said he really felt the pain that night when he returned to the team hotel after the game.
“I was in bed and I had to get up to use the bathroom and I had to push myself off the bed and drag myself across the floor to get there,” he said.
Owens was clearly not 100 percent in West Virginia’s final regular season game at Miami, or in WVU’s Big East tournament first-round game against Rutgers. He only managed to score 8 points in a stunning defeat to the lowly Scarlet Knights.
The loss dropped West Virginia to a 10-seed in the NCAA tournament, but it gave the Mountaineers some sorely needed time to recuperate. A refreshed WVU team ran Temple right out of the gym in its first-round game in Boise, Idaho, before facing ninth-ranked Cincinnati two nights later.
Of course that’s the game West Virginia won, 75-74, when Jarrod West banked one in at the buzzer to upset the Bearcats
, coached then by Mountaineer alum Bob Huggins.
“I mention that game to Huggs whenever I’m back in town and I see him,” Owens said. “I also joke with him that I could go out there today and give him 15 minutes right now.”
Following the Cincinnati win, West Virginia lost a hard-fought, 65-62 decision to Utah in the round of 16. The Utes went on to lose to Kentucky in the NCAA finals.
“I still regret that game,” Owens admitted. “That’s the one game I think we got away from playing the way we played all year – and that was on us as a team, not the coaches.”
Owens is ranked second in career steals with 244, sixth in career double-figure scoring games with 87, 10th in career double-doubles with 25 and 13th in career scoring with 1,616 points - a stat line that should put him in the discussion to be included among the most versatile players in school history.
These days Damian is living outside of D.C. and working for Legal Shield, which provides legal services to families and small businesses. He said he’s been doing that now for the last three or four years.
“A lot of people can’t afford their medical expenses or expenses related to accidents and other things, and I work for a company that can help them with these types of expenses,” he said. “A lot of people are getting taken advantage of and we are there to help them.”
Owens said he first realized the need for what he is doing while still playing pro basketball overseas.
“It didn’t make sense to me when I first saw it,” he said. “But once I stopped playing, I realized the potential for these services.”
As for his Mountaineer career, Owens said he really enjoyed his four years playing in Morgantown, especially those games at the Coliseum where West Virginia is always tough to beat.
“That Coliseum shakes a lot of people up,” he said.
When Owens played overseas or in the CBA and he would meet up with guys who had played games against him in Morgantown, he said they would always have something to say about the Coliseum.
“They would say, ‘Man I hate coming to play in that place!’” he laughed. “They would always talk about the musket going off, especially the guys from the city. The first thing you do is you duck, and then run. I remember when I was a freshman I had to get used to the musket going off. I was on the bench and I found myself ducking all of the time because I wasn’t used to it yet.”
Based on the way he played, that musket didn’t seem to bother him too much.Check out Antonik's new book The Backyard Brawl: Stories from One of the Weirdest, Wildest, Longest Running, and Most Intense Rivalries in College Football History now available in bookstores. A portion of the sales benefit the WVU Department of Intercollegiate Athletics. Also, be sure to "Like" the new Backyard Brawl Facebook page and tell us your personal WVU-Pitt story.