Saunders: Backyard Brawl Still Produces Emotion for Pitt, WVU
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Pitt and West Virginia did not play men’s basketball in 2020, their scheduled game a victim of the COVID-19 pandemic.
That means the last time the teams played before Friday’s resumption of the Backyard Brawl at WVU Coliseum was in 2019. And very few players on either side on Friday took part in that one.
Of the nine Pitt players that took the floor Friday, just one played in the 2019 game: walk-on guard Onye Ezeakudo. For West Virginia, there were two: guards Sean McNeil and Taz Sherman.
So needless to say, the teams were not exactly familiar with one another coming into the game.
But that didn’t stop it from being a rivalry on the floor.
It started with the 14,100-strong sellout crowd, back to full throat since the start of the pandemic, which was loud from the rolling out of the carpet. The West Virginia student section stood throughout, chanting and shouting and aggravating the visitors.
“An incredible environment,” Pitt head coach Jeff Capel said. “It was good to be back in that environment in college basketball. It’s been a couple of years since we’ve been able to play in front of a crowd like. For all of our guys, this was the first time that they’ve ever been in front of an environment like this.”
When Pitt guard Femi Odukale made a jump shot early in the game, he turned toward those students with arms stretched open and then blew them a kiss. They booed him every time he touched the ball the rest of the game.
Odukale was involved in two first-half dust-ups after whistles, and even though the basketball being played by both sides was not about to set any records, it provided exactly what those thousands came to see: a real, rivalry game.
That’s what sophomore forward and Fairmont, W.Va. native Jalen Bridges was looking forward to about this game. Bridges was one of the few players on the floor with first-hand knowledge of the history of the game, and he had been looking forward to the opportunity for a while.
“It means the world being able to represent this state at one of the highest levels in college basketball,” Bridges said. “Playing against Pitt, that’s the Backyard Brawl. It goes back years and years and years. Being able to get that going this year after we missed out on it last year because of COVID, it was a surreal feeling, honestly.”
The difference in the final score was mostly about how the team reacted to the sudden pressure that came with an emotionally charged rivalry game. The more experienced Mountaineers stayed cool, calm and collected.
“We have guys like Taz and Gabe [Osabuohein] and those guys that have been here and they were really good,” West Virginia head coach Bob Huggins said, and he added that he didn’t see it is a challenge to come through in those kinds of moments. “You want that. You want a chance to play at the highest level of college basketball. So it’s not hard at all, because that’s why they came here.”
But for Capel’s less-experienced Panthers, there were times when the size of the game started to feel a little bit big. Pitt turned the ball over 32 times, leading to 34 WVU points, more than double the margin of victory.
“I thought all of our guys, at times tired to do a little bit too much,” Capel said. “There was a little bit too much adrenaline. Instead of making the simple, easy decisions, a lot of times those decisions were right there in front of them. We just have to be able to see it against pressure and to be able to make those plays.”
This game is the last currently schedule meeting between the teams, so it’s uncertain at this point if the Brawl will continue, but if Pitt wants to perform better in the future than the 15-point loss to the Mountaineers, the blueprint is right down the road.
Competition is good, but this rivalry is toxic.
Ask fans of other BIG 12 teams how they feel about West Virginia and its fans if you think this is too harsh.