A Capital Classic
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. - Well it’s that time of year again when West Virginia and Marshall get together in Charleston for state bragging rights.
The countdown clock over at Marshall’s website shows one day, 23 hours and eight minutes as I begin to write this.
And while most West Virginia fans probably view Marshall the same way Pitt fans view West Virginia, the game has almost always been interesting and entertaining, particularly when the series was first revived in 1978 after a 47-year hiatus.
Back in the late 1970s Marshall just wanted to play the Mountaineers again, so the first four games were played in Morgantown – all West Virginia wins. For the most part the games were highly competitive, Marshall losing by seven in 1978, by six the following year and then by two the year after that. Twice West Virginia and Marshall played three times during a 365-day span - once during the 1978 calendar year and again in 1979-80.
By then Marshall badly wanted a game in Huntington and West Virginia coach Gale Catlett was the person who finally made it happen.
“(Former Marshall coach) Stu Aberdeen called me and he said, ‘Coach, this is not fair to play up there with your officials on your home court all of the time. I’ve got a job, too,’” Catlett recalled in 2010 for Roll Out the Carpet. “I said, ‘I’ll tell you what I’ll do, Stu, I’ll talk to the people here and we’ll play you in Morgantown one year with our officials and in Charleston next year with your officials. Then back to Morgantown and back to Charleston.'"
West Virginia’s ‘road game’ against Marshall took place on Jan. 2, 1980 at the old Charleston Civic Center – just four days after the two teams played in the Mountaineer Classic in Morgantown.
“Marshall had most of the tickets,” recalled former Marshall assistant athletic director Frank Giardina, who will once again be calling this Saturday’s game alongside Rob King and Warren Baker for ROOT Sports. “West Virginia got the normal amount of tickets a visiting team would have. (WVU guard) Noah Moore from Parkersburg hit the key basket. It was a really good game.”
The following year the Herd finally knocked off West Virginia, 76-73, in overtime at the Coliseum and not too long after that Catlett’s phone was ringing once again. It was Marshall coach Bob Zuffelato (Zuffelato had taken over as Marshall's coach after Aberdeen tragically died of a heart attack in 1979 while vacationing in Florida). Zuffelato said he wanted a game with West Virginia in Huntington when construction on the new Henderson Center was finished.
“They got their new place and they called and asked us to play home and home,” said Catlett. “I said, ‘I’m not playing you home and home. I’ll tell you what I’ll do, I’ll play one year in Morgantown, one year in Charleston and one year in Huntington with neutral officials. Then after I told him this I had to go back and sell it to my people.”
Eventually, West Virginia agreed to go to Huntington to play Marshall on Dec. 5, 1981 in what turned out to be a 91-78 Marshall victory. Giardina remembered listening to Catlett firing off zingers afterward during his postgame press conference, which was quite surprising to everyone because Catlett was notorious for being cantankerous after losses.
“The first time West Virginia played in Huntington they stayed at the Holiday Inn Gateway and the team had a police escort to the arena,” Giardina recalled. “Catlett said he was standing next to the bus as his kids were getting off when one of the policemen came up and wished him luck.”
“Are you going to be pulling for the Mountaineers?” Catlett asked Huntington's finest.
“No sir, coach, I hope Marshall beats your ass!”
Catlett, grinning, said that’s exactly how it should be. Then a reporter asked him when he knew things were headed south for his team.
“Right after (Marshall player) Charlie Jones’ mother sang the national anthem,” he answered.
Jones came off the bench to knock down 6 of 7 shots, scoring 17 points and pulling down 10 boards in a big moment for Marshall basketball and an even bigger moment for him and his mother.
But two years later the game in Huntington got ugly when WVU walk-on guard Tim Austin tore off his jersey and slung it into the crowd as he stormed off the court. After that a couple of skirmishes broke out on the floor. Three more intense games were played in Huntington in 1985, 1987 and 1990 (all West Virginia losses) when the decision was made to move it to Charleston.
“Someone suggested why not play them in Charleston?” Catlett said. “So we tried it for a year and it worked OK.”
Since 1992, the games have been played in the Capital City on an annual basis and when a title sponsorship was secured (today it is called the Chesapeake Energy Capital Classic) it became a very profitable venture for both schools.
West Virginia has won the vast majority of the meetings in Charleston (19 out of 24), at one point capturing nine out of 10 during a 10-year span from 1992-2002, but each Marshall victory was a bitter pill for Mountaineer fans to swallow.
Easily the toughest defeat for West Virginia came in 2006 when a 12-win Marshall team knocked off the ninth-ranked Mountaineers, 58-52, just three days after they flew commercial back from Los Angeles following a 60-56 win over 18th-ranked UCLA in Pauley Pavilion. West Virginia’s All-American center Kevin Pittsnogle was forced to eat his words when he guaranteed a win over the Herd.
“They were just dead,” Giardina, who called that game with John Sanders for the Capital Classic Network, said of the Mountaineers.
Catlett’s overtime loss to the Herd in 2002 came near the end of a long and successful coaching career that lasted 24 seasons at WVU and ended abruptly with a handful of games still remaining in the regular season.
Bob Huggins, too, tasted defeat to Marshall in 2011 when his team went down to the Herd, 75-71. The next year West Virginia rebounded to win by 16 – one of the widest margins of victory in this very competitive series – and then followed with a 10-point win in last year’s game.
Some of the most memorable WVU-Marshall games in Charleston:
1995-96 Season – Coach Billy Donovan’s Thundering Herd pulled out a 91-87 victory behind Jason Williams’ terrific playmaking and Keith Veney’s 29 points -18 of those coming from 3-point land.
1996-97 Season – Defense key in easy win was the headline in the Charleston Gazette the following morning, but there was hardly much defense in West Virginia’s 103-91 victory over Marshall one year after the Herd snapped WVU’s four-game winning streak. Keith Veney missed 10 of 15 from 3-point distance after setting an NCAA record with 15 3s in his prior game against Morehead State. However, it was West Virginia’s Damian Owens, Gordon Malone and Brent Solheim scoring the close ones that proved to be the difference in the game.
1998-99 Season – West Virginia claimed this one when guard Lionel Armstead hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key at the buzzer in overtime to give the Mountaineers a come-from-behind 85-84 victory. After Armstead’s winning shot, West Virginia radio announcer Jay Jacobs could be heard yelling “choo-choo!” as veteran play-by-play man Tony Caridi tried his best to continue describing the scene.
1999-2000 Season – Beckley’s Tamar Slay showed West Virginia fans what they were missing when he lit up the Mountaineers for 35 points on an assortment of 3-point bombs, slashing drives to the basket and thunderous tomahawk dunks. Slay scored nearly half of Marshall’s 77 points in the five-point defeat and his 35 remains the most points scored by any player in the 41-game series.
2001-02 Season – Slay once again burned West Virginia for 23 points, but this time he had some help from the likes of Kentucky schoolboy sensation J.R. VanHoose and smooth-shooting guard Ron Blackshear coming off the bench. The 81-79 win was former Marshall player Greg White’s only victory against West Virginia in six tries.
2004-05 Season – West Virginia was 11-1 and back in the national rankings for the first time in seven years while Marshall was sporting a 2-10 record, so naturally the Herd pulled off a 59-55 victory in a game plagued by awful shooting. The Mountaineers actually shot it slightly better than Marshall, but the Herd made 10 more 3s than West Virginia to pull off the huge upset.
2005-06 Season – West Virginia center Kevin Pittsnogle was feeling so good about his team’s four-point victory over UCLA that he guaranteed a win over Marshall three days later in Charleston - not exactly a Joe Namath moment for the Martinsburg native. Marshall pulled out a 58-52 victory in another brickfest, the Herd shooting 37 percent while Beilein’s Bombers misfiring on 24 out of their 29 tries from behind the arc.
2007-08 Season – Sophomore forward Da’Sean Butler showed Mountaineer fans against Marshall in 2008 what he would later do as a senior in 2010 in leading WVU to the Final Four: make a game-winning shot. This one came with six seconds remaining when he took Marshall’s Adam Williams off the dribble to settle the score, 66-64.
Will there be another heart-stopper in store for us this Saturday?
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