By Tim Goodenow for MSNsportsNET.com
March 31, 2010
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – As the final seconds ticked off the clock, West Virginia sophomore forward Devin Ebanks flung the ball high in the air, signaling the celebration to begin as the Mountaineers knocked off top-seeded Kentucky, 73-66, in the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y.
The Mountaineers had won the NCAA East Regional and were headed to the Final Four in Indianapolis.
Amidst the dancing, singing, cheering, hugging and laughter stood WVU assistant coach Billy Hahn. There he stood quietly off to the side with his arms folded, in his trademark black turtleneck, cracking a smile while observing every bit of this special moment.
A coaching veteran of 30-plus years, the realization of reaching the Final Four had hit home. In fact, it tugged deeply at the heart of a man who once experienced it back in 2001 as the associate head coach at Maryland.
“First off, just getting there was overwhelming,” said Hahn, whose Terps were bounced from the national semifinal at the hands of Duke. “It takes a long time to believe you are there. Then before you know it, you’re there and it’s over. For all the hoopla surrounding the week, it passes so quickly.”
To Hahn, reaching the Final Four is like climbing Mount Everest. You dream about it, but you don’t dare take it lightly, and if you’re lucky enough to reach its peak, you better enjoy it.
Hahn had spent 12 seasons on the bench at Maryland before taking the head coaching job at LaSalle in 2002. That same season, Maryland went on to the win the national championship with a team full of Hahn-recruited players. He had missed the rare opportunity to win it all by a year.
Even so, Hahn still made the trip to Atlanta on what he calls “a class and generous offer” from Maryland.
“My family and I actually went to Atlanta as Maryland got us tickets. They made me feel as much a part of it as I could,” said Hahn. “It was tough not being on the bench but I got my satisfaction being on the bench the year before (at the Final Four). It probably would have been heartbreaking had I not experienced it the year before.”
The triumphs and heartaches come from living a life revolved around the special game of basketball.
“I’m biased but it’s the greatest profession in the world. The game of basketball has played a major role in mine, and my family’s lives.
His son, Matt, followed in his father’s footsteps and is quickly making a name for himself as an assistant coach at Vermont. The two were reunited in Buffalo two weeks ago, along with Billy’s wife, Kathi, and daughter, Ashley, at the NCAA tournament’s first round.
“What are the chances you have a son coaching at Vermont and with all the places you can send a team for the NCAA tournament, they send both of us to Buffalo,” grinned Hahn. “It’s even amazing the game times for us even worked out.
“In the 32 years I’ve been doing this, I’ve had a lot of great NCAA tournament runs as a player and coach,” explained Hahn, who made two Elite Eights as a player for legendary coach Lefty Driesell at Maryland. “I talk about the basketball gods all the time and those basketball gods have been good to the Hahn family.”
The Hahn family will be united once again this weekend in Indianapolis, soaking in the Final Four run all together.
“It’s been a great run for our program, but an even better run for my family,” admitted Hahn.
“It is so hard to get to this point. I don’t think people fully understand that. There are more than 300 teams in Division I basketball, and we are one of four left. That’s remarkable.”
Part of the WVU’s success this season has come from a close-knit group of players, something every coach relishes for each of his teams.
“When I talked to coach (Gary) Williams after they won the national title, he said their team bond was the strongest of any team that he has ever coached,” offered Hahn. “I think the 2001 setback pulled the team together to make the national title run.
“This West Virginia team has developed a bond, a very strong bond. The bond we have now is not the bond the team had back in November, December or January. That bond has developed throughout the course of the season.”
The Mountaineers have won 10 straight games while winning the school’s first Big East tournament title. That success, however, is not to be taken for granted.
“I tell our players we have to stop and smell the popcorn,” smiled Hahn. “There is that distinct smell of popcorn on game days in every arena. Sure, there are two more games to be played, but you have to embrace how you got here and what you have left to accomplish. “
The madness surrounding West Virginia’s run this season is enjoyed by fans, alumni, players and coaches alike. For WVU’s newcomers, it can be overwhelming and easy to get swallowed up and spit out by the March Madness.
“Even before we got to this point, I told our guys, ‘this goes really quick,’” said Hahn. “Especially for guys like Dalton Pepper, Deniz Kilicli
and Danny Jennings, I said just because this happened your freshman year, don’t think it’s going to be like this every year.
“Yea, we want to do it every year. But it’s not an every-year thing, it just doesn’t work that way.”
The 2010 West Virginia basketball season has cemented itself as a record-breaking season and certainly one to remember. As Hahn and the Mountaineers head to Indianapolis, he reminds you it has been 51 years since WVU last made a national semifinal appearance.
“There are no promises this will happen for any of us again. Finals Fours are special; they don’t come around all the time.”